Tribute to Robert Day
1941 - 2022
The last time I saw Bob Day was just before he and his wife Kathy moved to Santa Fe. He appeared at my door having lugged a vintage Ham radio up three flights of stairs. He handed it to me and said, “Mr. Dissette, you should have this. It belonged to my father. Pretend it’s the Cold War. I’ll be in touch.”
That was typical Bob Day. Spontaneous to the point of combustible. Sincerity wrapped in levity always leaving a hint of “did I miss something?”
To know Bob was to know him through his humorous non-sequiturs, a style that signaled permission ‘to be let in on the joke’ and to, hopefully, participate. It was disarming and usually by the end of any conversation you’d realize that you’d agreed to something that was not on your short list of endeavors but often proved equally worthwhile.
In a way, that was Bob’s technique as a master educator—to engage and immerse students in literature on a personal level. For instance, he could talk about David Copperfield and Dickens’ appreciation for Henry Fielding, what Anthony Burgess thought about Fielding’s Tom Jones and close it quoting comments made in a coffeeshop by retired ranch hands in Ludell, Kansas about how Tom Jones was a pretty good singer. It was an anecdotal trick he often employed to reveal the brocade of connectivity of the arts with life. As a literary raconteur he was unsurpassed.
Anyone who knew Bob as a teacher would know, to further animate aspiring writers’ interest in literature and good writing, he initiated a visiting writers series in the early 1970s that brought to the campus some of the best writers of the day, often to the porches of the two impromptu Lit Houses which would eventually become the Washington College Rose O’Neill Literary House which stands today as a tribute to his mission to offer writing students a sense of place and fellowship with the like-minded.
I was lucky enough to have Bob as a creative writing instructor my last two years at Washington College and later, after twenty-five years on the west coast, as a friend and publisher of some of his novels and collected works. He was still that buoyant, joking, instructive soul I knew as a twenty-year-old and during the last two decades continued to involve me by default in some literary enterprise or another. I was always willing. After all, his previous enterprises brought to the College AWP, the Writers Union, over 100 visiting writers, Rose O’Neill Literary House, and The Literary House Press—why would I not?
Summations of a friend’s life are perfectly imperfect haiku. As a teacher his instilling in his students’ raw enthusiasm for creativity and sense of purpose was my experience and of those with whom I’ve remained in touch. He had his edges as we all do and sometimes risked academic comradery with his all hands on deck style of promoting ideas, but without that zeal the College and his friends would be lacking the greater gifts he gave us.
It’s not far-fetched to think that as his former student and friend, the next book I open, if not one he discussed with me, is one he taught us how to read.
I’ve thought about that short-wave radio for some time and wonder if, as a boy in Kansas, he sat with his father by its glowing dials and listened to the faraway voices chatter about their lives in different languages. For him the world was having a dialogue through a mist of static and I imagine Bob hearing it as a drama of characters in a never-ending story, and that he would add bandwidth to that story by adding the voices of his characters to the stories he would eventually write and leave to us so that we wouldn’t have to go too far to find him.