Walter Dean Myers’ memorial (3/9/15, in NYC) was unlike any I’ve been too before. Christopher Myers (his son) did a wonderful job did as master of ceremonies. He was witty, engaging, soulful, and charming. Masterful. In homage to Walter he assembled a roster of artists; poets, musicians, writers, who performed their work. There were songs, poems, stories, music, all deeply personal, all quite wonderfully performed. All of the people had some connection to Walter; friend, mentor, or just people he knew and cared for.
It was joyous, sometimes wondrous, touching, three hours that I suspect people will remember for a very long time.
Christopher asked that there be little direct homage to Walter. In fact, my short introduction (see below) was the only one of its kind. But as it led off the evening, it worked well.
Wish you had been there.
(My remarks were an expanded version of the blog I posted last July when I first learned of Walter’s death.)
Connie, Christopher, friends:
Thank you for letting me join in this celebration of Walter. I’d like to share some very brief words about him.
I’m not sure just when Walter and I met and became friends. We were virtually the same age (he, five months older), both from New York City, both had attended Stuyvesant High School at the same time, though—with five thousand students—we didn’t know one another. Not then.
Whereas I flunked out of Stuyvesant after the first marking period, Walter went on longer. We also shared an interest in theatre, London, photography.
We spent the most time together when we worked in ART, Authors Readers Theatre, our traveling readers’ theatre troupe. Rehearsals over, he and I would sit around in hotel lounges and he would tell me stories about his life, his evolution as a writer, and of course, basketball. (Of which I know nothing.)
Nothing was more powerful, nothing better than ART’s performance of Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, which is, in vital measure, about Walter. He took his own part and when the script read, “Is Mr. Walter Dean Myers a real person?”, oh, how he enjoyed being that person. Such a sweet smile. Such gentle pride. It moved audiences and was by far the best moment in our show.
I admired him and his writing so much. There was something Buddha-like about the man. He was big, big in person, big in voice and in his writing, so full of articulated compassion. He could delineate the souls, experience, and aspirations of African-American kids, of all kids, with searing, sometimes brutal honesty, but always, always infused with understanding, empathy, and most of all with hope
Here’s a small story about that.
Some years ago, I was visiting a prison in Virginia, talking to a group of young men, prisoners all. They were dressed in drab prison garb.
I sat in a chair, and they—twenty or so—sat in a semicircle at a “safe” distance. Black kids. Hispanics. White. Guards were standing around at a discreet space, though they were certainly there. The young men were quiet, polite, but stiff and distant. Were they readers? Readers off my books? I doubted it. Or perhaps, just glad to break routine? I didn’t know.
I talked for a while. There was, at best, vague interest. And much distance.
Then someone called out, “You know anyone famous?” Obviously, I wasn’t famous.
There was a stir. They sat up.
“You his friend?”
The whole mood shifted. They sat up. Looked at me. With interest. Distance evaporated.
One of the guys said, “Tell us about him …”
It turned out they were readers. His readers. They told me how much his writing meant to them.
And I was okay, because Walter was my friend. As they spoke it was clear that Walter spoke to them, of them, for them. Walter gave his readers something every writer aspires to, a voice. A magnificent, compassionate voice.
When the session was over and the guys were being led away, one of them called back, “Hey, Avi! Make sure you tell Myers we like his stories.”
Walter, they liked—and still like—your stories.