Author Archives: rcspeaks

Gene Wilder: Dancing Through Life

Gene Wilder

Mandatory Credit: Photo by STEVE WOOD/REX/Shutterstock (74497b)
VARIOUS – 1979

Gene Wilder died yesterday, and my Facebook feed rapidly filled with remembrances. I was certainly sad, because he made me, and countless others, so happy.

I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s films, and his acting performances. Among my favorites is, “Silver Steak,” a 1976 film about murder, romance and intrigue on a long distance train trip. In the film, Wilder’s first pairing with Richard Pryor, he keeps getting thrown off the train. And there was a memorable scene in a biplane. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a riot.

In my view what made Gene Wilder unique was not the strength that he brought out in his characters, but rather their flaws and weaknesses. Whether it was his dependence on a blue blanket in, “The Producers,” his drinking problem in, “Blazing Saddles,” or his pure eccentricity in, “Young Frankenstein,” his struggles were in plain view. And in each case, his characters overcame obstacles to move forward.

Dr. Frankenstein, to the monster: “Hello, handsome! You’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous! Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile…”

Behind the scenes, we now know that Gene Wilder was suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease for the past three years.

I also learned today that Gene Wilder was bullied and sexually assaulted in school as a teenager.

As Hal Holbrook said in his book, “Harold,”

“An actor’s little gold mine is his secret nest of feelings, born of the way life has treated him and how he has chosen to respond to it.”

Holbrook, one of our finest American actors, had been beaten by his schoolmaster.

As an actor who has also performed comedy and as a boy who was bullied in school, I can understand the need to form connections and find joy inside to share our gifts with others on the outside.

In reading about him online today I learned some other things about Gene Wilder. His birth name was Jerome Silberman. He was a fellow veteran of the United States Army. His cancer was in full remission after treatment with chemotherapy and adult stem cells.

After his wife Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, he co-founded Gilda’s Club, which has the motto, “no one should face cancer alone.”

While it is easy to remember Gilda and imagine the fun that they had together, I was also reminded by many Twitter posts that he leaves behind his wife since 1991, Karen Boyer.

He left us with genuine humility and dignity, qualities that are often missing in a world today that is so filled with the latest gossip and rumors about people that have no impact on our lives at all.

Gene Wilder’s work formed a big part of my life’s journey, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t recite lines from “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” from memory, or wish that I had a golden ticket to join Willy Wonka on a boat ride through his chocolate factory.

“Charlie: What was that we just went through?

Wonka: Hsawaknow.

Mrs. Teevee: Is that Japanese?

Wonka: No, that’s Wonkawash spelled backwards.”

As the statement from his family said, “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” – Willy Wonka

Touching the Future…

January 28, 2016

Thirty years ago today seven people died aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff. I was 19 years old in 1986 and was stationed in West Germany in the United States Army. It was a traumatic event for the world and I am still heartbroken.

Christa McAuliffe never got to teach her lessons from space, but she certainly inspired many of us when she said, “I touch the future. I teach.”

When I was in the third grade a NASA spokesperson visited my school, which sparked a lifelong interest in the space program. Many people told me in the days that followed the Challenger tragedy that they thought of me. I haven often thought of the seven astronauts who died and wondered why, and of their children who lost a parent, and of the many children who were watching the launch live in their classrooms. We’re all older, but the sadness remains.

This year, along with remembering the seven members of the crew and their infectious smiles, I am making a donation in their memory to Children’s Health Fund.

Godspeed, Christa, Greg, Judy, Dick, Ron, Mike, and El.

Challenger crew

Oklahoma…there and back again

August 31, 2014

Recently I started writing out the introductions and conclusions to my presentations. As I prepared for my scheduled August 15 presentation on Wiley Post at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, I re-read favorite books, wrote some portions of my remarks, edited and arranged my slides, and simply contemplated his life story. I knew that the final part of my preparation would be visiting Oklahoma for the first time in the days leading up to my talk, so I left plenty of time in my schedule to enjoy myself. My introduction was pretty much set a few days before my plane took off.

Robin Williams in Patch Adams

And then Robin Williams died.

It was a sucker punch to the gut, a brick wall of sadness and loss that I had felt before with the sudden deaths of people such as Jim Henson, Tim Russert, and Christa McAuliffe.

While comforted by the collective outpouring of grief from many people, including my friends on Facebook, it was incredibly sad to realize that we have received all that we ever will from the brilliant creative spirit of a man that I first remember as Mork.

Robin Williams, like Will Rogers before him, left a body of work that will be enjoyed for years to come. Both Williams and Rogers left films completed and still in the can, shared stories that made us laugh until our sides hurt, and made reflective and serious observations about life and living.

Will Rogers and Wiley Post

When Robin Williams died, I understood in a more personal way how the sudden deaths of Will Rogers and Wiley Post in a plane crash on August 15, 1935 affected this country so deeply.

Will Rogers died before I was born, and before my parents were born, but my grandparents could listen to him on the radio, see him on the movie screen, and read his newspaper columns. Today he would be on Twitter and Facebook and probably still observe that, “Why they call it traffic when it ceases to move I do not know.”

In his recent autobiography, “Harold,” Hal Holbrook said, “You go down the road your gut tells you to travel.”

That quote explains very simply what has resonated with me about Will Rogers and Wiley Post during more than 20 years of study – they each followed their own unique course through life and they were aware of, and used for the benefit of all of us, their strengths and abilities.

A number of years ago I visited the final home of Will Rogers, which is a state park in California. The house where he was born in 1879 is preserved on a living history ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma where peacocks, donkeys, and goats wander the grounds with giggling children and reflective adults. The Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore preserves and shares artifacts from his life and his story for future generations. It is also the final resting place for Will, his wife Betty, their children and descendants.

The place where Wiley Post was born in 1898 near Grand Saline, Texas is just a field now, and the house where he was living at the time of his death was torn down for progress. But all around Oklahoma, from his grave in Oklahoma City where a monument stands nearby, to an airport named for him, to a replica of his airplane, the Winnie Mae, which hangs in the Oklahoma History Center, the honors exist.

For a number of years I have happily taken on a personal mission of sharing the story of both Will Rogers and Wiley Post – humbly being their messenger to keep their stories alive. Visiting the Will Rogers Memorial Museum for the first time this month was a very moving experience. Driving up the hill to the museum, sitting at the family tomb in the sunken gardens, and rubbing the toes of Will’s statue for luck as thousands of people have before me, are moments that I will not forget.

Wiley Post & the Winnie Mae

As I shared during my August 15 presentation at the museum, I have been inspired by the many facets of the life of Wiley Post. Wiley was a mechanical genius who also spent time in the state reformatory for highway robbery as a young man. Just ten years later he flew around the world in 8 days, 16 hours with Harold Gatty navigating their course in the Winnie Mae. Within four years of that achievement he was first person to fly around the world solo, soared to more than 50,000 feet while wearing the world’s first pressure suit that he designed, and discovered the jet stream. Like me he moved around a lot as a kid, yet eventually counted people such as Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, and of course Will Rogers, among his friends.

While sitting in the Will Rogers Theatre at the museum before my presentation on August 15, I thought of Will Rogers’ way of connecting with an audience and how much I have learned from the words that he left us.

I also thought of my Dad—a member of his high school debate team, storyteller, canoe and kayak enthusiast, natural salesman and woodworker who has passed many gifts on to me and who still inspires me with his love of life.

I thought of my Mom, whose love of history is contagious. I thought of my “Grampy,” Max Cork, who loved airplanes and died while I was still too young to remember him. I thought of my “Grammy,” Becky Cork, who sent me a postcard of Will Rogers when I was 12. On it she wrote, “You can learn about this man in your encyclopedia.”

As I stepped onto the stage to speak, I wore a jacket that belonged to my wife’s father, Paul Draper, who I regrettably never met—a typewriter salesman and storyteller who loved to coach kids in soccer and was among the Allied forces that liberated Dachau in the closing days of World War II and served as an MP at the Nuremberg Trials.

I realized in those moments that I am their messenger too, and that they were all with me in spirit.

My visit to Oklahoma was a wonderful experience, even more special because I shared my visit with the people that I met. From the waitress at a restaurant in Oologah where I enjoyed a bowl of chili, to the staff and docents at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, to the tour guide at the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Diligwa village in Talequah, everyone that I met helped me to understand why people sing about Oklahoma and its hills and open sky. In the words of one of the members of the Will Rogers family that I met, “People that are from here sometimes go away for a while, but then they come back.” I look forward to my next visit.

With a statue of Will Rogers in Claremore, Oklahoma

Happy Father’s Day, Dad

dad and kids

Family canoe trip, 2007

Early in 2007 my youngest brother Jason called and said that Dad was changing, and he thought that we should put together a family canoe trip.

(My Dad had been mugged outside a restaurant in Ocala, Florida in 2001 and was hit hard on the head. He started having headaches right away, and then memory losses, and then his personality started to change.)

We took that canoe trip later in the year, all six of us surprising my Dad for a wonderful weekend together in North Carolina.

It’s been a slow decline for my Dad and painful to experience. When I asked my Mom what year he was mugged I couldn’t believe that it was so long ago.

I noticed on that canoe trip that my Dad was different – he was fading from the gregarious person that someone once called, “a compulsive talker” to a more reflective and quieter person. He stopped working. He stopped driving. He stopped writing stories. He stopped calling. He stopped emailing. And as I write this today he is not only forgetting the visits of his children, he is forgetting who we are. Of course, none of this was his choice and his doctor said that it was intelligence that slowed the decline.

It’s difficult to write those words but we have all accepted the reality of my Dad’s condition and are concentrating on supporting him and my Mom as best we can. We just hope that his final days, no matter how many, are peaceful.

On this Father’s Day I remember the time when I was ten years old when I learned the importance of having a father.

It was 1976, and I had a block of wood and a bag of parts to build a race car for the upcoming Cub Scout pinewood derby in Rockford, Illinois. I started whittling away at the wood but didn’t make much progress.

My Dad had an idea, and he took the block of wood to a friend’s house and shaped it on the bandsaw into a streamlined replica of a soapbox derby car like the ones he raced when he growing up in Indiana. He helped me to sand it and paint it red white and blue, in honor of the bicentennial — but my Dad did most of the work.

I remember feeling angry, that my Dad had taken over my project.

When we arrived at the pinewood derby at the next pack meeting, I saw my friend Danny Brown’s car. It was still the square block of wood that came in the kit. No whittled wood, no sanding, and painted with water color paint.

Danny’s dad didn’t live with him – his parents were divorced. He had to get that car ready on his own. In retrospect it was the most beautiful car that I have ever seen.

My anger faded away when I saw that car and I was grateful to have a Dad. Later that night my car won 3rd place in the pinewood derby.

Pinewood Derby, 1976

My pinewood derby car sat in a checkbook box for many years. The axles had broken, the wheels were long gone, and it would never race again.

One day in New Jersey about twenty years ago I found a set of pinewood derby car wheels in a hobby shop, and asked my Dad to fix my car.

He formed new axles, touched up the paint, put on the new wheels, and built me a beautiful stained wood base to display it proudly.

It’s been some time since my Dad could operate a bandsaw, or sand wood, or send me an email or tell me a story. That’s okay, he helped me make that car and I’ll remember him for all of the times that he was there for me.

Thank you, Dad. I love you, and Happy Father’s Day.

The car that I built with my Dad, 2013.

My dad died on April 23, 2021, and I sang, “Back Home Again in Indiana” to him as my brother Jason and I held his hand and said goodbye. We will miss him.

My Puppy, Wiley Post

Wiley Post on July 4

Wiley Post on a sunny July 4

I met my puppy Wiley Post at the Arlington County Animal Shelter in September 2000. Of all the dogs in the cages waiting to be adopted she was the only one who was not barking. I put my hand against the wire of the cage and she leaned against it. When I took her outside to get acquainted she was more interested in looking for things that people had dropped on the ground than in hanging out with me, but that was okay.

We went back a few days later to adopt her, and my wife Linda asked if they could give her a bath. They said, “We already did.” She smelled pretty bad, so we helped them to give her another bath before we put her in the car. It didn’t help.

We took her to the groomer as soon as we could. When I went to pick her up I saw a dog on the groomer’s stand and asked about my dog. The groomer said, “This is your dog.” I hadn’t recognized her – she looked like a different dog.

Her name was Wiggles then and at three she wasn’t really a puppy but I liked to call her that. We changed her name to Wiley in honor of the pilot Wiley Post. At that time we already had cats named Gypsy Post, Emily Post, and Washington Post, and would later add Marjorie Merriweather Post and her kittens Parcel Post, Bani and Eliza.

Over the next few days there were a lot of adjustments in our house. Up until that point we only had cats. So we made sure that Wiley couldn’t get to the litter boxes and the cat food. It was an ongoing effort over the years.

Young Wiley hoping for a treat

Wiley was full of energy from the beginning and even though we did go to an obedience class, I never got trained very well. Or, maybe I did.

Wiley loved people, especially kids, and they loved her. And when we had theatre rehearsals in the living room she would watch with intense focus. She even appeared in the Christmas pageant at church one year.

When she was young Wiley would not sleep on the bed while we were home but when we came in the door we would hear a whump as she jumped off the bed and ran downstairs to meet us. And boy would she run up and down those stairs.

When she trotted along on her walks or in the back yard she had a kind of diagonal course. I often called her my diagonal dog.

There was nothing better than a greeting from a happy Cocker after a long day at the office.

Walking Wiley in the winter time was tough with all of the ice and snow, and I’ll admit I didn’t always want to get up and take her for a walk when I was tired. But she would come upstairs quietly and sit and stare at me until I woke up.

One day in the back yard on a very icy day a few years later I noticed that Wiley was lifting up one of her hind legs as she walked. We took her to the vet and it turned out that she had to have surgery to repair her cruciate ligament. The vet told us that it was likely that the other back leg would likely get weaker and require the same surgery. They were right. After each surgery Wiley had therapy on a treadmill in a water tank. She seemed to like it.

Wiley and Eliza

Wiley and her buddy Eliza

Wiley got her strength back in her legs but she could never jump on the bed again and she took the stairs slower. As she came down the stairs with more and more caution over the years, our cat Eliza Doolittle, Wiley’s buddy, stayed next to her and often slightly in front of her to slow her down. She often tried to cuddle up to Wiley and even though Wiley didn’t always reciprocate they were inseperable.

In her final year Wiley slowed down quite a bit. The walks were shorter, the naps were longer, and I thought about the earlier times of boundless energy and jumps off the bed and wished for their return.

Wiley in her sweet spot

In her final weeks Wiley would be asleep in her favorite spot – the closet – when I came in the door. I let her sleep until she got up and then I greeted her. I missed the days when she would be at the door waiting for me before I even turned the key in the lock. As Wiley had greeted me enthusiastically when she was younger I would now greet her instead. And I carried her up and down the stairs until we decided it was best to move her bed to the main level of the house.

In the final days of August 2011 Wiley stopped eating. We don’t know why, but she clearly wasn’t feeling well. We tried everything – she wouldn’t even eat her treats or the special food that we bought. She wouldn’t even lick the peanut butter off my finger when I offered it or try to eat the cat food nearby.

I took her to my office on September 9 and introduced her around to the staff, wishing that there had been more days with her at my side. She was a good dog. We stopped by our regular groomer to see Wiley’s friend R.J. She quietly rested on the floor and drank some water that he offered. As he quietly pet her I was grateful for the care and friendship that he had given her over the years. She was often sad to leave. It was her second home.

That night I slept on the floor with Wiley, hoping to give her some of the comfort that she had given me over the years. I didn’t get much sleep, but she did.

The next day at the vet’s office we held her paw, and stroked her fur, and we told her that she was a good dog. I looked into her big beautiful eyes that so often had enticed me to give her a treat and said goodbye.

Many of the staff at the vet were crying along with us. They loved her too.

When we came in the door of the house without her it seemed so quiet – and empty. And it still does. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did, but we still miss her a lot. I think the most touching moment of that weekend was when we came back from the vet without Wiley and Eliza was looking for her friend all over the house.

Wiley taught me a lot of things.

She taught me to always ensure that the refrigerator door was closed all the way so that she couldn’t get into the food that was at dog height.

She taught me to not leave my backpack on the floor with my lunch in it.

She helped me to understand that sometimes we need to help each other to get up the stairs.

She taught me patience, and that it is good to take a walk–to just slow down and enjoy time with our friends because that time is finite.

Most of all she taught me how to be a friend – by just being one to me.

Recently I saw a magnet on the back of car in the shape of a dog’s paw, “Who rescued who?”


Wiley and Rob, August 2010