Created Bill in ’88, Met Him in ’99

Here’s a funny thing about these B.Y.O.E. events, that is, Bring Your Own Eulogy: So much of the time those anecdotes are maybe a bit more about the speakers than the, er, guest of honor. If you’re in a down mood today — and a memorial generally is NOT a happy hour — you could say that once again here’s another example of the me-me-me 21st century. Yet, how can you tell stories about another person without you as the narrator, you as the re-actor or even you as the “inciting incident”?

Perhaps more than other people, one part of William Mayes Flanagan‘s artistry is how he brought out the life spirit in others. This Happy Hour has begun.

In 1988 I created Bill Flanagan. In 1999 I met Bill.

In 1988 I was in Little Rock, responsible for national and international news at the Arkansas Democrat. On the side, I began a humor column. It was published in a weekly mailed edition of the newspaper. Being a student of the genre, my humor pieces went all over the map — essay, satire and narrative. The last really is a form of “flash fiction,” as in ultra-short made-up stories.

Illustration by Vic Harville of "End Time Finally Comes for Mister Hapgood," a Mirthology column by Ben Pollock, published Sept. 21, 1988, in Mid Week Magazine, a publication of the Arkansas Democrat.
Illustration by Vic Harville of “End Time Finally Comes for Mister Hapgood,” a Mirthology column by Ben Pollock, published Sept. 21, 1988, in Mid Week Magazine, a publication of the Arkansas Democrat.

That fall 29 years ago I introduced a character who was middle-aged; opinionated; encouraging and happy; a groundskeeper and a watercolor painter. Indeed!

Now, a few weeks ago, days after Bill passed, I ran into Emily Kaitz in the parking lot of Ozark Natural Foods. I told her this anecdote, that it was not authentically, obviously about our friend Bill Flanagan. Also, this has a clairvoyant, ESP quality to it, and we’re rationalists. But Emily disagreed. She advised that this is the story I need to tell. Because she feels it. She can empathize with the deja-vu-ness of it.

The name of that invented figure I wrote about a few times over a few years was Oscar Hapgood. Other aspects of Oscar Hapgood’s personality that I put in the columns — besides the the witty clarity, political passion, the preference for the urban outdoors and the painting and so on — don’t much resemble Bill. Give me a break: I had a plot and point to take care of in 700 or 800 words.

Here’s Emily’s moment, which she gave me permission to retell: At some point after she moved to Fayetteville and became friends with Bill, she was looking at his works, and recognized herself. It was her face was on a ghost figure in a cemetery. Bill had painted it before they met. Emily later bought it and has that painting hanging in her house.

But when I met and got to know Bill Flanagan here in Fayetteville starting in 1999, his personality matched the fully-fleshed Oscar, the guy I had written up in my head.

It didn’t take but a few parties, poetry readings or gallery receptions back then to grow close to Bill and Barbara. Close enough to tell Bill that I was friends with him before, in my head. I may have told Barbara at some point. So what was Bill’s response? He shrugged and didn’t say much of anything.

What would be there to say?

This slide is an illustration on an early Oscar Hapgood column by Vic Harville. Vic’s preference was for me to tell him a capsule of the column rather than him read it. It made his drawing both less accurate but freer and truer. That might explain how Vic saw Oscar as a figment of imagination, hence the old boy is transparent, but there is the covered watercolor palette and a brick planter to sit on.

The real Bill Flanagan brewed the best coffee in town. He was a patient teacher when I took watercolor lessons in the attic of his and Barbara’s home. Christy and I proudly have two Flanagans hanging in our home. Every time I saw him, even the last time at the Farmers Market on an April Saturday morning, we had a whole conversation. Sometimes it was brief, but never was it just a hi-and-bye. Sure Bill spoke, but he listened closely. Often enough we would veer off to being damned angry at the world as it’s become but, beyond all, Bill was smart, he was fair, he was kind.

I admire Bill and will miss him always.

* * *

Note: I read a close version of the above at Bill’s wake today, May 6.

Note: The family arranged for the wake to be recorded. It’s on YouTube. My eulogy starts just after 1:37. Nearly every speaker and certainly every musician was remarkable. I’m glad I didn’t take too much time.

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