Charles Cully Van Riper touched the lives of unnumbered speech-language pathologists throughout the world, and their clients, especially those who stutter. He also touched directly, the lives of many who stutter. But an email sent in September 2002, demonstrates vividly how deeply Van Riper touched lives in other fields and in as well. The following is produced below with the permission of the author, Jeb Waldschmidt.
“I got to know Cully as a writer - I bought some of his Northwoods Readers at the Rainbow Lodge on the Two-Hearted in case I was cabin-bound. It rained for a few days, I had plenty of lantern fuel-- and I was totally blown away. So I dashed off a letter telling him how much I liked his stuff. Imagine my surprise to get a reply! This began a correspondence that lasted from 1988-1994. It was through these letters I learned he was a speech pathologist and he tossed off that he'd "written some books about it." I had NO IDEA.
“The man changed my life... as a WRITER. I went back to school 1n 1992 (at age 44) to complete my undergraduate- and now I'm working full-time as a grad assist and will complete my MA in English soon. goodbye corporate cubefarm! forever! And it never would have happened if Cully hadn't liked my stories (or at least he said he did... and I believed him). He did receive the letter/ read the story. I was one of the small faces at the back of the room at the memorial service.
“Hardly a year passes but I uncover another wonderful influence on the world by your "Dr. Van." We ride on the shoulders of a Titan.”
The Last Day of September, 1994
You and I share a special bond. Your end of the bargain is far more mysterious than mine. I am only a little Nighthawk, turning in the dark sky and crying the sound as Nighthawks do. Perhaps you are there... perhaps not. But there is a magical chance that the solitary cry beneath the stars starts a dream. I have heard that sound myself, and it started my dream. Today I received a three page letter. It began this way:
September 24th, 1994
Well, I guess this is about the last of our many communications, all good ones. I don't think I'd better try to prepare another. I thank you for the good company of ordinary times and for the ease you brought me in times of trial. Good connections. Good bye.
Cully Van Riper
September 26th, 1994
Now together again with his wife, Catharine Hull Van Riper, who preceded him in death, he is survived by his children, great grandchildren, brother and sister, and a multitude of dear friends who touched his life in special ways.
Cremation has taken place. Arrangements by the Cremation Society of Michigan. There will be no funeral services at his request. The family asks that you celebrate his life in your own special way. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Van Riper Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Van Riper Clinic, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 48007.
Perpetuate his memory by finding the joy in your own life, extending kindness and understanding to others, and finding solace in the beauty of creation.
Aw, the beautiful old bugger even wrote his own obit. And there it was on page 3. I recognized his manual typewriter strokes and his wobbly signature. I choked and read:
What shall you say about me when I'm gone? Say:
- That vicariously I lived a thousand lives in the people I served.
- That those I touched were never quite the same.
- That through my works and texts I helped pioneer a new helping profession.
- That I loved to see the flowers bloom, expecially those human flowers, my students.
- That through my Northwoods Readers I made many smile.
- That out of a barren field I made a park with tall trees, a pool, and many flowers.
- That I never quite managed to grow The Perfect Potato.
- That in my old age I again danced in the moonlight.
- That the deep forests and lakes were a part of all my days.
- That I was blessed to have lived with a strong lovely woman for many years.
- That we raised three fine children and they in turn nine grandchildren, all of whom loved me.
- That I fought myself out of the swamp of despair to make of my life a shining thing.
- That a bit of my tiny impact has been felt all over the world.
Charles (Cully) Gage Van
Dear Reader, we have lost a National treasure. It is a sad thing, it is a great thing. It was no surprise, for he was old and weary from such a long and shining life. Many's the time over many a year we swapped letters and stories. It was in Febuary of 1994 that I received his letter stating in his dry Zen-like way that he was given over to the care of a Hospice service and that he was going to die. I brooded over that weekend, pondering a long drive to Kalamazoo Michigan with my two small children, that they may look upon a great master, that I could thank the man who so changed my life. Finally, not wanting to intrude on the family, I decided to make a phone call instead, and for the first time, I actually heard the voice of Dr. Charles Van Riper. When he heard Jeb was on the phone (I was speaking to his son), he took the trouble to rise from his bed and say hello.
Such an honor! And yet I felt ashamed to disturb the tranquility of a great Master whose shoes I was not worthy of carrying! Still, he put me at ease, and in a minute we were shooting the shit like a couple of good old boys about lakes and trees and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we both love so much. He assured me he would hold out until Spring at least, to see "... that first damn flower." The tough old crust held out all Summer,too. I ain't the least bit surprised. So afraid, I was, to send that last letter he requested this Summer, afraid that I would recieve the sad news that came in the mail today. Take pity on an old fool little more than half the age of his master and let him share with you the last letter and the last story he sent along when the year was young.
So if you've the heart and the time and the patience, bear with me. Through electronic elocution I shall cut and paste these last words. If they penetrate the hurly burly of the day to day, the stock fluctuations and traffic, we are most fortunate. I will again turn in the night sky and sing the little Nighthawk song. I so miss my older brothers. But we still have the dark sky... and freedom.
The Last Letter:
(and it's all true)
December 21, 1993
I can't possibly express the joy I felt hearing from you again. So I won't even try. But it's still gotta be said. So I said it. There.
What of me, you ask. Well, after a year of unemployment I finally got a real job with WaterFurnace International, producers of fine geothermal systems. My official title is. "Creative Director." I started in August.
The year before that was a hard one, free-lance writing, selling encyclopedias, cutting wood and driving around a lot. Winter was especially hard, spending days with a six-month-old and a three year old in our cobbled-together freshly-moved farmhouse on a field of mud. Any appointments required daycare we couldn't afford. Hard times, but, glad to say, I believe we're through the worst. And if money is all a guy ever loses, he's lucky. I learned a lot being a stay-at-home dad. I have a greater respect for women and children.
I finished the book. Couldn't get anybody to read it, though. Now it's going through a major overhaul, and I'll keep at it until somebody reads it. Lots of rejections. You know the story.
Went back to school. Dropped out of college for a lot of reasons back in the early '70's and never looked back. It's going to be a long road, but I'm determined to be a scientist. I've been an artist all my life. Time to try something new.
I got to break away at the opening of Michigan's deer season to go to deer camp with a couple of guys from work. I didn't take a rifle. Jeez you guys. I thought you said, "BEER camp." The guy who owned the cabin (above Grand Haven) had one of the finest outhouses I'd ever seen. Inside, your story "The Privy" was tacked on the wall. I was proud to tell the blokes about how you changed my life.
The book is still being reworked, but I'll send you the first and last chapter. Have somebody read them to you. This junk isn't worth busting one rod or straining one cone. I'm going to try to record the story soon. Maybe it's best to wait for a tape.
Diana and the kids are fine. Ezekiel (Zeke) is a little wind-up bubba toy with big blue eyes just like his mamma. He'll be two in March. Amelia is her daddy's little punkin seed. She loves Cully's stories. Diana reads them when she has chapel at school. We're all waiting for the next one. They just keep getting better.
Naturally your high and low times this year touched my heart. Aye, if the fabric of my life is as rich as yours, Sensei, if I am fortunate enough to attain such age and wisdom, good sir, I will be lucky. I would never presume to console one so much wiser. But I still believe nothing is forgotten and nobody dies. And she's only a smile away.
Please please take care of yourself, Cully. You are one of our Nation's great treasures.
January 17, 1994
Had to get off this letter. Just returned from our U.P.. Snowmobiled in the last 12 miles to the cabin at Crisp Point. Spent four great days in winter's terrible beauty with my father-in-law and our friend Mike Hawfield, a professional historian. Barely made it out in a snow squall with 30 below cold and 40 knot winds blowing off Lake Superior. You can imagine how this made an impression on an Indiana boy from down below.
Amelia's grampa bought me a copy of "Old Bones..." in Paradise and I loved every word of it, especially "Old Man Pone" and your conversations with Robert Frost. I blew a couple of mental raspberries at the publisher for being such pantywastes about "Grampa tells me about sex." I'm really looking forward to your new one this spring.
Most of all, I hope I too will have the good fortune one day of being Monkey Business Grampa. Sadly, my children only have one Grampa now, but I gotta say he's about as good as they come.
Still, I wish the Old Man were here. If you get there before I do, please look him up. Tell him his boy misses him. Tell him there's a little blue-eyed boy down below who will learn to say his prayers the same way we used to do.
January 24, 1994
Just got back from New Orleans. Saw a 120 degree temperature change in a week. Drove a truck down and flew back. What's the loneliest place in Louisiana? Bayou Self. French Quarter, beans and rice and the whole nine yards. I love the place. Cuisine, art, music and crazy people. Quite a long way from the U.P., but there plenty crazy people up there too you betcha.
I stood in frozen solitude and watched the moonlight dance on the ice of Lake Superior. I looked up from the drunken jumbled crowd on Bourbon Street and saw her shine. We can change our scene, but we see the same moon. Aye, she's a harsh mistress too. It's a journey whether you make it in snowshoes or sandals and it don't make a helluva lotta sense sometimes.
Now I'm caught in the day to day with work and classes and the band and babies. I try to keep my hand in my writing, but I'm not sure it's going anywhere. I still don't know if the shit's any good. I feel like a granny making a quilt for a blimp. Can't get anybody to even read the stuff.
February 5, 1994
Begorra, it's February now. I shall will this letter into the envelope this day. So help me. So many things I want to say. So little time. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. You changed a life or two good sir. I am most honored to call you my teacher for the rest of my life. You have a hand in shaping the path of my children and grandchildren far into the future. It's saturday. Diana's off with the kids and I have some time to myself. Getting to the end of the page. Strong coffee and word processor. Trip to the mailbox. I have promises to keep and miles to go. Keep well, old friend. Your words truly shine. And most of all: Enjoy!
and now, the last story. February 16, 1994, and I swear by God 80% of it's true...
The Passage of a Great Ship
The light had turned to amber in the balmy evening of September, 1848 in the city of Dublin. James Paul Ryan had hovered as close as he dared to the port of Dun Laoghaire to watch the passage of the great ship. He had watched the great ship unfurl her sails and move out with the tide, becoming smaller as she strained her rigging to plow over the horizon into the Irish Sea. Bound for Amery-cay, she was, and aboard was his brother and family with the last bit of savings and treasure of his band of the Clan Ryan. Jamie watched her sails become a speck on the sea as the sky grew dark and one lonely, peculiar star shone bright in the evening sky.
Jamie noticed the star, and it climbed into the heavens the following night as Jamie spent a cold evening huddled with another dispossessed family in a "scalp," a hole dug in the earth roofed over with twigs and turf. Hugging himself against the brisk damp, he took little notice of the lonely peculiar star as it smiled above the scalp on its journey through time and space. The terrible famine was upon the land. The tyrannizing landlords had turned many from the fields where forefathers had lived and died for a thousand years. Jamie was one of that many, and this fact was little comfort to him as he walked the long roads through the mountains. Years later, the letters from America went unanswered.
The great ship was the Golden Eagle, one of the last of her kind. She was a Yankee Clipper Ship and the tallest and grandest in the harbor. Naturally, Jamie assumed his brother and family were aboard that ship. Actually, they were aboard the Sara Marie, a squat, ratty little barque that remained at anchor three full days after Jamie departed Dublin under the lonely, peculiar star. Jamie's journey south over the mountains of Kilkenny toward Cork would fill a book. So would the journey of Jamie's brother. The sea voyage took eight full weeks and nearly forty of the dispossessed Irish aboard died en route. Still, the emigrated branch of the Clan Ryan endured and sent for Jamie when times were better. The letters from America would go unanswered. This night Jamie stared into a peat fire and paid no notice to the lonely, peculiar star in the black Irish night. Many times they died along the road. He dreamed of the great ship, the dark sky and freedom.
The star was still there and the brush burned out of control. The wounded were burned alive where they had fallen in the Battle of The Wilderness in the American Civil War. The man who would later father the little girl who would marry the descendent of Jamie's brother had suffered an agonizing leg wound. And he was only a cook. He would be pulled out of range of the raging brush fire by a Rebel infantryman and sent by wagon toward Andersonville prison. Later, he would roll off the wagon and crawl back to Union lines. He would become a successful merchant in Bloomfield, Indiana. Because of his leg wound, he became addicted to Laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. No problem. As a successful merchant, he could order it by the case. When the out-of-work bureaucrats needed another witch hunt at the end of Prohibition, the drug was outlawed. Sometime later, Great Great Grandfather was found quietly swinging from the roof beams of his store, presumably a suicide. The store was closed, and later it burned down.
The swirling flames joined each other and became a fire storm. Six miles above the German city, a nineteen year old togglier squinted through the bomb sight and released his bombs. As they fell toward earth, another B-17 heavy bomber, engines on fire, drifted underneath the nineteen year old's airplane. The bombs knocked a wing off, and the luckless lower bomber burst into flames and spun toward the burning German city. No 'chutes. Perhaps the crew had bailed out when the airplane had become hopelessly crippled. The nineteen year old had studied hard to get out of the ball turret gunner position. Your ass was hanging down below a heavy bomber to be shot at by fifty million angry Germans. Worse, the nineteen year old was of German descent. His son would read accounts of bomber crews abandoning their aircraft before reaching the target.
That was the theory proposed by the ball turret gunner's son when he heard his father tell the story of the luckless bomber over forty years later. He saw the tears in his father's eyes. The lame theory was the only comfort he could offer, but it was better than nothing. He and his father sat before the fireplace on a winter evening in the mid-1980's. Above the old brick house, the lonely peculiar star kept its vigil in the night sky. The son wasn't thinking about the star, but some years after his father died, that star became most important. The ball turret gunner's son had no way of knowing it was the same star Jamie had observed exactly one hundred years before he was born. Sparks crackled and hissed.
The gunner's son closed the top of the wood stove and set out to the barn for more wood. It had been a strange weekend. Friday night his wife had found him drunk as a hootie-owl, holding a letter sent from Michigan. Tears were streaming down his face. "Cully's dyin', man. Aw, dammit Cully." Cully Gage was the pen name of Dr. Charles VanRiper, one of the great pioneers of Speech Pathology and Audiology, author of many texts and theories on the subject. But it was not the texts and tomes that had touched the heart of the gunner's son. It was the wonderful stories Cully Gage had written about his boyhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Cully's bones were old now, but the fire was alive, and his stories were a turning point. The gunner's son was no stranger to the twists and leaps of his American English language.
All his life he had turned phrases like a fry cook flips burgers. They sizzled on the grill of greed, selling cars and cans of soda. Not until he was approaching fatherhood and forty did it occur to him to use his skills for something besides hustling spark plugs. When his own ship set sail, he could leave more than an unfinished tire ad. He even returned to college and was now taking a course in Women's Studies, where he had just learned that "empowerment" could mean the power from within, the ability to endure. And endure he must, for life is hard down on the farm with his scanty income, wife and two little children. On Wednesday he must turn in a written reaction to hearing young women bicker on the semantics of oppression. It was late Sunday evening.
And, sad to say, many of us are not free to this day. Children are killing each other this night in the "War on Drugs." And oppressed they are, the women. So are the Irish by the tyrannizing landlords. So are the black people by the terrible bonds of slavery and the Jews in the evil ovens of the holocaust. Sparks rose up the chimney. They winked out and escaped in the form of carbon molecules and heat energy into the dark sky.
Checking the chimney flue on the way to the barn, the gunner's son saw the lonely, peculiar star and felt The Feeling. He had seen the star as a little boy, but didn't know what The Feeling was. Later as a young man and an expatriate, he recognized The Feeling. Many called it "homesickness," and in those days he would look at the star and whisper, "I want to go home." And tonight, the ball turret gunner's son smiled at the star. "Bon Voyage, Cully. I'll get there." There were children to feed and he had to split the bones of oaks who stood on the earth with Jamie Ryan. And there was writing to be done. There was the tide of history. He would write about the passage of a great ship.
The great ship. The dark sky. And freedom.
And now, Good Bye to you Old Sir. And doncha hurt none now, doncha hurt. Look up the Old Man, now, like we talked about. God Bless, Old Sir. I love you.
And thank you, Dear Reader, for hearing the cry of the little Nighthawk.