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Friday, September 26, 2014

Remembrance of Uncle Walter

Uncle Walter in Yugoslavia 
Today's post was written and spoken at Uncle Walter's funeral by my daughter, and is used here with her permission. 

"Thank you all for coming today.

Uncle Walter was a lot of things, but boring wasn't one of them. In photographs, he is nearly always pleased: and no wonder. When Uncle Walter was photographed, he was usually in another country.

The travel industry has changed a great deal since he worked on Michigan Avenue, but the general idea--go and make sure to have a wonderful time while you're at it--comes through loud and clear.

A few months ago, my mother and I sorted through his enormous collection of expired passports. Uncle Walter was a man of the world, or at the very least a man who saw quite a lot of it, and so the visa stamps were like something out of a spy novel.

Japan. India. France. South Africa. Cuba ("Fidel Castro was always very nice to me," Uncle Walter said. Apparently the Cold War really did a number on the honeymoon tourism industry). 

Uncle Walter wasn't exactly James Bond, but he had an air of mystery about him, one that was at times overshadowed by his very dry wit, or his impeccable nature. It was easy, as a child--and it remains easy now that I am an adult--to think of Uncle Walter as a man at the end of a long journey. 

To be sure, his life in Chicago had a lot of routines embedded in it: Aldi for groceries, Selmarie or Brauhaus for lunch, freezing a coffee cake in individual slices so it wouldn't have time to go stale. But his apartment--which he moved into in 1956, the day my father was born, and which he moved out of in 2008--was filled to the brim with souvenirs from the life he led when he was away from home. It seemed very small, or at least it seemed that way until we had to move everything out; then it was just a constant unfolding of stories no one had ever asked about. 

Part of that was money, of course, because Uncle Walter knew the value of a dollar and didn't work with anyone who was sentimental about the fact--but part of it was that, Uncle Walter was the kind of man who planned for every contingency and who knew how to read his audience. Uncle Walter also knew how to be a tourist; he excelled at parties because of this. The trick is: stand in a corner with a glass of scotch, and wait to see what happens next. It's a very good trick. I have written it down.

When pressed for talking points, the war comes up in one way or another. I think it was the first time he had gone to another country. Uncle Walter served as a staff sergeant based in the Philippines and did quite a lot of administrative work; he used to say that a typing course saved his life. He never really said much aside from that, which was generally considered a good reason to change the subject. Still: when we were sorting through Uncle Walter's papers, we came across a letter from Bob Stillwell, who was a close friend to Walter and served with him during the war. Bob wrote, "you have always been the perfect gentleman.... And you taught me that life was supposed to be fun. Never forget those cocktail parties [during the war] with the bombs falling all around us."

Uncle Walter had style, and he wasn't shy about offering his opinion. But that remains a very small part of who he was. 

Uncle Walter was an astonishing person and he lived a very long and full and fascinating life. I have a feeling that we will never know the half of it. I hope he had a marvelous time."

----Katie Rose McEneely


  1. Dear Naomi, I thought I had commented on this post earlier, but apparently not. It is a lovely tribute to your uncle. I think his journey was a very good one......I am so sorry for your loss.

    1. Kristi, thank you so much for your kind words. I do miss him, and it is a very large hole to fill.


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