In 2012, it was my privilege to help develop a new award for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, the Henry Blake Fuller Award, honoring a living author for their outstanding lifetime contribution to literature. We honored Gene Wolfe with the first Fuller at a beautiful ceremony at Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington Hills on March 17, 2012. My account of the evening is here on my blog. It was magic.
It has been almost a decade, and Gene is no longer with us. Tomorrow, on Sunday, September 19, 2021, we will induct him into the Hall of Fame proper, along with Carlos Cortéz, Jeannette Howard Foster, and Frank London Brown, in a ceremony at the City Lit Theater in Edgewater.
I will be presenting Gene’s award to his daughter, Therese Wolfe-Goulding. Kathie Bergquist will be our emcee, and there will be speeches by the other presenters, Tracy Baim, Carlos Cumpián, Kathleen Rooney, and those accepting the awards on behalf of the other inductees. While it won’t be broadcast live, there will be a recording of the event that will be up on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website later.
My tribute to Gene, along with rest of the program, will also be available on the website after tomorrow. (I’ll add it to the post here.)
It was challenging to find the words… actually, it was challenging not to go over the word limit for what we had the space for in the program… to celebrate this wonderful writer who contributed so much to literature and whom I was honored to call my friend.
I miss him, his anecdotes and unusual facts; his stories about growing up, writing, and convention adventures; his kindness, his smile, and his sense of humor. I treasure those conversations, and I will be so happy to present the award to Teri.
I hold onto the fact that I have those memories, and we have his words—his stories and novels, his letters and interviews. It makes me happy to know that he will be joining the ranks of other important writers who have called Chicago home, and who have previously been inducted in the Hall of Fame, including Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, L. Frank Baum, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert, and Mike Royko. The full list, along with biographies, is on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website.
I’m going to share a video that I stumbled upon when I was doing a little research. In 1982, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Isaac Asimov appeared on a show called “Nightcap: Conversations on the Arts and Letters” hosted by Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin.
At the time Gene was 51, only a few years older than I am today. It was interesting to see this younger Gene, just over a decade into his career, and yet he’s much the same Gene I got to know at 80.
We don’t often to get to know and love our literary heroes. It’s definitely a gift when we do, and I think it changes us for the better, but the rest of that I’m saving for my speech tomorrow night.
I became involved with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame because I believe that Chicago has an important literary legacy deserving of attention. After two induction ceremonies where we celebrated historical writers, it was time to look at the contribution of writers living and working in Chicago.
There was no question in my mind that Gene Wolfe should be the person to receive the first Fuller Award.
His work is rich, innovative fiction worthy to stand beside many of the literary giants that have shaped not only Chicago’s literature, but modern literature as a whole.
There was briefly a question of “genre writing,” but if we take a look at the literary landscape, the fantastic is an important part of it. Homer, the greatest epic poet of Ancient Greece wrote about Odysseus’ adventures among gods and men. Dante’s La Divina Commedia drew upon medieval Christian mythology in a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Shakespeare incorporated folklore and fairies into his plays. Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde all introduced elements of the supernatural in their works.
Considered to be some of literature’s greatest writers, many of their stories would likely be considered Fantasy and Science Fiction by today’s genre classification. Somewhere along the way, mainstream literature became aligned with realism, but if we look back on the literary spectrum, we see that much of it is saturated with the unknown, the mysterious—the fantastic.
Gene’s work is like that—fantastic and significant.
After talking with Gene and receiving his gracious acceptance, I corresponded with Neil Gaiman. A long-time champion of Gene’s writing, he was my touchstone. After Neil, I contacted others: writers, editors, family, friends; and they responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.
Again and again they confirmed what I believed, that people love Gene Wolfe. Upon meeting Gene, a respect for the writer and his words evolves into a genuine affection for the man.
March 17, 2012 brought us a day of unseasonably warm weather and sunshine. We headed toward Barrington Hills, stopping for a delicious lunch at the Happy Buddha; and as I looked around the table during our meal, I was once again reminded how blessed I am to have these dear friends in my life. Many of them had been up late the night before, helping me to fold, cut, paste, and package. Even friends who couldn’t attend the event had pitched in to help in during the months before the event. (Thank you!)
A few quick errands, and we arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate for final touches and setup.
Soon after the guests arrived, and while I waited for Neil and Maria Dahvana Headley in the Carousel Pavilion, I received texts from the folks at the house with updates on guests’ arrivals and the progress of signings and check-in.
Others will surely do the same, and in many ways their perspective is better than mine because they entered into the evening as participants, stepping into the “container” that I helped to create with the assistance of talented friends. It’s like a magic trick, best enjoyed by the audience (but savored in a different way by those who know the trick).
The afternoon was a whirlwind of rehearsals, tours, photos, and the eventual start of the ceremony.
After Gary K. Wolfe’s inspired introduction, Neil’s reading of “A Solar Labyrinth,” and his heartfelt presentation of the Fuller, Gene took the stage.
His speech was so gracious and genuine, so smart and witty—so very Gene.
After Gene’s speech, I knew I could relax. I never doubted that Terra Mysterium’s performance of Gene Wolfe’s “The Toy Theater” (adapted by Lawrence Santoro) would be wonderful, and it was.
Once the organist R. Jelani Eddington took the stage, I slipped into the foyer where I could still hear the music.
A small group of us had gathered there: Neil, Peter Straub, Carl and Mark, Audrey, Kyle, and Maria, and 8 Eyes Photography.
Neil told me that Amanda had called at precisely the moment when one of the marionettes was singing “Coin-Operated Boy” during the audio-play. It made me smile. Neil had been such an invaluable ally, and I liked being able to slip in a little echo of Amanda into the evening; the song was a perfect addition to the story and the setting.
So much followed, from fun photos on the grand staircase to the Great Coat Closet Party of ’12, while in the adjoining music salon Jelani played Star Wars on the 8,000-pipe Wurlitzer.
I love this incredible circle of creative people in my life. They don’t all appear in the photos here, but I remember their contribution. I couldn’t have done it without them. The evening was proof that together we can make magic.
After the performance and more photos, we moved to the magnificent Carousel Pavilion which looked so lovely lit up in antique lights. Chef Jeramie Campana of Wild Asparagus and his team treated us to a delicious meal.
Peter Sagal was the perfect toastmaster, fabricating quirky biographical anecdotes for each speaker as he introduced them.
Each of the Special Guests who took to the podium offered his or her own perspective on Gene and his work, beginning with Gene’s daughter, Teri Goulding, who talked about how proud her mother, Rosemary, would have been.
Rosemary was not well enough to attend, and her absence was felt by all who loved Gene. In my own small way I had had tried to include her by attaching a few small sprigs of rosemary to Gene’s boutonniere.
Following the speeches, dinner, dessert, and cordials, Greg Leifel, the Foundation Director at Sanfilippo announced that guests could ride the antique carousel. The crowd cheered, loudly, then ran to stand in line. What followed is best expressed in a few photos:
Joy. Wonder. You can see it reflected on their faces in photos and in this video by Bill Shunn:
That carousel evoked such a joyful response. I could think of no better way to end an evening that honored a man whose stories delight so many people. To see his face lit up, to see him so happy—it was the perfect way to close the night.
Maura Henn, and Kyle and Trillian, were staying with us, and some of the guests met us back at our home. Joined by Peter Straub, Gary K. Wolfe and Stacie Hanes, Jennifer Stevenson, and others, we had cocktails, wine, and cheese, and sat around the living room relaxing in various stages of exhaustion and inspiration.
Then it was over.
When the house was quiet, Kyle, Maura, and Mark chatted while I fell asleep on the couch. In the morning it was like a fantastic dream.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting photos from the evening. Slowly they have begun to appear online.
The photos help to make it more concrete, just as writing this blog entry helps to tether it to reality, as if written words can keep An Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe from drifting off into that nebulous realm of dreams and memories.
In life, we are lucky to meet people who inspire us. Sometimes we encounter them through their work—stories and images that strike a chord. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have them for friends. This weekend was filled with both.
Thank you to everyone who helped to make it happen.
Just got home from a lovely BBQ at my parents’ house, with a nice long chat over coffee. I love these chats. As a young person, we had many meaningful chats over coffee, usually on the heels of a heated disagreement or debate. As I got older, the debates became fewer in number, but fortunately we maintained the coffee conversations. I’m so grateful.
It’s Father’s Day, and I am blessed to have many father-figures and mentors in my life starting with my father, who continues to teach by example: to live a life of integrity, to stand up for what I believe in, to value the importance of family and friends, to be true to myself no matter what others may say, to honor the elders and take joy in the children, to stay connected to roots even as we reach for the stars.
Thank you to the men in my life who have taught me invaluable lessons, inspired me to be more than I am, believed in me and encouraged me.
Some are still a part of my circle, others have passed on. I am better for having known you, and I am grateful.