Remembering Dick Williams: Caen, Thompson, Sexton, blue cornmeal. and the funny stigmata

Posted: September 12, 2013 in Experiences, Family, On Compassion
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Earlier this week my cousin, Dick Williams, passed away. OK, Dick was not really my cousin. Dick’s wife Deborah is my father’s cousin so there is no blood relationship going down here.  I’m not very good at this “second cousin” and “once removed” stuff so I can’t even tell you how Deb and I are related. I looked it up on Wikipedia but I’m too tired to figure it out. The bottom line is that Dick Williams has no blood relationship to me yet I do, and will always, call him my “cousin”.  In fact, if you consider familial impact on a life, Dick is closer to me than many of my first cousins and I’m going to continue calling him a “cousin”. So there!

I say that Dick had an impact on my life not only because his kids – Mark, Becky, and Caitlin – have been my pals for over 40 years. I say this also because Dick taught me so many things about writing, life, politics, and living your dreams that he was a monumental influence on me.

Back in the day, Dick used to regularly send me packages of Herb Caen columns because he knew how much I loved Herb’s writing. Every morning, when I’d visit, he’d have Herb’s column waiting for me at the breakfast table!

He took me to Stanford, to have Christmas dinner with Stanford English prof. Dave Halliburton, on more than one occasion. Dave was Diane Middlebrook’s office-mate and that’s as close to Anne Sexton as I ever got. But it was also Dick who turned me into an Anne Sexton lover.

It is thanks to Dick Williams that I read Studs Turkel (in whose writing Dick was interviewed!), and was introduced to Molly Ivans. I’m not sure but I believe that he was also the first to play “Drop Kick me Jesus Over the Goalpost of Life” and “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore” for me. So I owe my knowledge of Kinky Friedman to him too. And, I have to admit this, it was Dick’s paperback copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” that I secretly read one Christmas and then used for a JR. HIGH book report. I got extra credit for the “Lola in the Vestibule” scene, I think 🙂

Dick was the guy who taught me how to make blue cornmeal pancakes, how to dig Hunter Thompson, how to argue politics, the value of print journalism, and why happy hour could be an amazing daily bonding experience. Whether I was in Jr. High School or College Dick always treated me as an adult and an equal.

I’m not old enough to remember Dick when he was a writer for the Sacramento Bee. I’m not old enough to remember, but am still jealous of, when Dick met Hunter S. Thompson at a DNC convention. I am old enough to know, however, that there are lots of tidbits like that which I can’t remember but which I wish I did. I’m also old enough to remember blue cornmeal pancakes on Sunday mornings, cooking Indonesian food for his family, always having a warmly welcoming ride from the Oakland airport and an equally warm invitation to sleep on the sofa-bed downstairs overlooking the bay, Christmas services at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley (which was actually in Kensington but who’d ever name a church “the First Unitarian Church of Kensington”, lest it be abbreviated) where I’d routinely get nosebleeds from the incense (which the whole family would think funny and would call a “stigmata”!), and watching the 6:00 news – cocktail in hand – at our daily “happy hour”. I think I may have actually properly punctuated that previous sentence and I’ll bet Dick is proud of me for it, too! In a nutshell, Dick Williams was a great support to me during my formative years, an awfully influential role model, and a dear friend. I’ll miss his warm and gracious spirit, indeed!

Disk passed away early on the morning of September 9th 2013; the exact day that my own father turned 85.  Dick passed on just shy of his 82nd birthday. After an arduous 2-year battle with myelofibrosis, a chronic bone marrow disease in which continually worsening scar tissue forms in the bone marrow thus impairing the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, Dick breathed his last breath with his wife and other family members by his side.

I said this in a pretty ad hoc way on Facebook the day Dick passed on. But I want to say it again here. I’m very sorry I did not spend more time with Dick over the course of the past few years. I’m angry with myself for not making time to hop down to Berkeley to visit him in hospice.  No doubt, I’ll get over that but still: I want Mark London Williams, Rebecca Williams, Caitlin Williams, and Deb Williams to know how much I loved Dick. The fact that I sometimes don’t make time to do everything right does not mean that I don’t do everything with love. As for you guys, I loved your father and I love all of you.

Z”L

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