Eulogy for Joe Van Slyke

On Monday, August 27, 2007, Remy Bumppo hosted a memorial service for the theatre community to honor Joe’s life and work.  Joe’s friend John Finnegan, Jr. presented this lovely eulogy, which we are pleased to share with you.

Good evening. My name is John Finnegan. I represent some of the people in Joe’s life from the era we know as BC – that’s Before Chicago. Before Chicago, there was Minnesota and that is where Joe and I were both born and raised — where we met and, above all, where we formed a friendship that has lasted more than 40 years.

Joe was a puzzle. As an actor, he was energized, creative, responsive and open to his colleagues – open to all kinds of strategies and tactics to perfect his art. It was a life-long pursuit for him. But in his personal life, he was the most private of men. My privilege was that of meeting Joe when we were in our teens. We in a sense grew up together. We saw each other at our best and our worst – idealistic young men filled with angst about who and what we might become and hoping that we might make some small difference in this large and fearsome world.

Now, here is the part where I tell you some secrets about your enigmatic good friend. And if he were standing here next to me, he would no doubt club me with a rubber chicken for doing this. He did revere Monty Python. But you want to know about BC because it makes Joe’s Chicago years all the more interesting to know how he got here.

Joe and I met in about 1966 at Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary in Arden Hills, a suburb of Minneapolis. Yes, we were studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood and did so together through our sophomore year in college. It’s not such a great leap from the church to the theater at least if you consider liturgy as theater, and theater as the liturgy of human life and experience. Each celebrates storytelling in its own way.

We received as near to a classic education in preparation for college as was available in those years: Latin, French, world literature, mathematics, the physical and social sciences, history, theater, and, of course, pub-crawling. Did I say pub-crawling? Well, it wasn’t officially a part of the curriculum – it was more of a peer-taught course really, but important to surviving in the seminary along with, I am sorry to say, the liberal use of tobacco.

I think Joe was one of those most fortunate of men. By his teen years, he already had picked the theater and the performing arts as his true home – and both of us knew by college that a career in the Church wasn’t in the cards for either of us.

And speaking of cards, Joe’s passion for Contract Bridge was nurtured in the college seminary – to be precise in the card room of Loras Residence on the St Paul Seminary campus. He was a wickedly good player in those days but an insufferable table talker. “Gosh,” he used to say while sorting his hand, “there are so many rouge pointy ones here, what’s a body to do?” He could do Frazier Crane before there was a Frazier Crane.

But if the Church wasn’t the pathway for us, what was? We became English majors, of course — at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Joe’s love of the theater, music and literature blossomed there and at the College of St. Catherine through its superior theater program. He discovered he was blessed with a fine voice and musical sense and that even as a young man, he was versatile enough to do light opera and musicals as well as drama and comedy. He most always got the old man parts because he could be “flinty” even at 18. I was privileged to join him in some of these college endeavors – never the singing, just the comedy and drama once in awhile.

One of my cherished memories of Joe is from these years. He played the role of Dr. Dulcamara, the charlatan physician, in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. In one scene, the earnest male ingénue sings of his unrequited love for his darling who barely notices him, imploring Dulcamara’s help with a potion. As the young man sang his heart out to the audience of mostly children, Joe sat behind him at a table peeling a very large apple. The peel – in one piece – snaked across the table, over the edge and headed for the floor. This brought squeals of laughter from the children to the confusion and consternation of the singer. By the time the aria was complete, the peel was fully five feet long. The audience burst into applause and fortunately for the singer, he believed it was all for him. I don’t think the singer ever realized that he had been upstaged. I remarked to Joe about this later and asked him, did he know what he was doing?

“Yes, sort of,” he said. “It just kept growing and I couldn’t stop. And besides, I just felt the aria needed… well… some more appeal.”

Had I a rubber chicken at the time, I certainly would have used it.

While at St Thomas, we took a semester together for study at University College Galway on Ireland’s west coast. We arrived early, several weeks before the start of Michael Mass Term, as the Irish called it, and toured Ireland, Britain, Scotland, Wales, and France. We drank deeply of the theater, music, literary sites, museums, and perfected our newly acquired pub-crawling skills.

We saw Macbeth at the Abbey Theatre and some forgettable piece whose central premise was someone’s mother locked in the boot of a Rolls Royce. For the rest of the trip, “Me mudder’s in the boot,” became our mantra for less than great theater.

We hit most of the major shows in London’s West End. We saw John Gielgud as Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s Bingo. We saw Maggie Smith and later Alec Guiness in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father – a few of the best actors of their generations. We savored Poets Corner in Westminster, the Tower of London and Canterbury Cathedral, the place where Thomas Becket was martyred. We saw Henry II’s castle at Dover. We went to William Wordsworth’s home near Lake Windermere. We took the Hovercraft to France and spent five days in the Louvre and still didn’t see it all. This is what young English majors do. We gorged on art and culture. It was a happy and exhilarating time for us both.

When Joe graduated college, he headed to North Dakota State University (NDSU) at Fargo, for a master’s degree and to begin his work as an apprentice actor. I deeply cherish our correspondence from this time. Both of us struggled with what to do post-college – to find the pathway; to build our skills and make a life in some professional domain. Even though Joe had chosen the theater there were many directions to choose from in that large domain, and he was not yet sure that acting was the pathway. This period was sometimes difficult for Joe to judge by his letters. There were a couple of disappointing Guthrie auditions. He agonized over his procrastination, his loneliness and the lack of seriousness that he witnessed too often in his fellow theater graduate students. But he turned frustration on its head with his humor. Here is Joe as only Joe could say it in one of his letters to me, dated January 20, 1975:

“Here I sit in my little office waiting for the mail. I would wait for the phone to ring, but I haven’t got one. One more link in this insidious plot to drive me over the edge into the land of eternal night and day where the weeping of gnashes can be heard above the low drone of forever snores. I’ll show them. I only pretend to be sleeping. They think they’ve got me. They think I’m like them. But I’m not. Tucked deep within, I harbor the last remaining vestige, rudimentary and sloppy as it is, of a real, live, pre-lapsarian, ante-deluvian cerebrum. Really, I do. Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other men. One day I shall rise from this vale of vicissitude, and this burning growing castle rooted in stable muck shall blossom into giant chrysanthemum buds. Buddha will look down and be well pleased.”

Then there is a pause in the letter, and Joe adds: “Now, John, do you see what reading Groucho Marx and August Strindberg can do with an otherwise nothing day?”

Quintessential Joe.

Or, take this paragraph for self-knowledge: “Looks like the spring play will be no other than Desire Under the Elms. I am curious as to what role, if any, will be assigned to me. I’ve never done O’Neill, and the roughness and dialect would no doubt stretch me, if not do me in altogether. It makes me realize that my stylistic experience in acting has been a lot narrower than I thought. I think that it would be very good for me – I’d like to take a crack at Eben, but the problem is my physical size – don’t know if I’d be believable. Perhaps I should start eating again. Ah, those torrid love scenes. All actors are dirty old men.”

You will be pleased to know that he got the role of Eben and was very believable indeed to judge by the reviews.

He did this and more and that included the Prairie Stage, a traveling tent theater that he reported blew down more than once in North Dakota gales. He opined that this was all good experience. Lots of things can go wrong with a production, although losing the entire theater was something he hadn’t trained for.

Finally, he finished the apprenticeship at NDSU and headed to Wayne State for a doctorate. He was still exploring an academic career in theatre like one of his mentors at St. Kate’s, Dr. James Symons, now at the University of Colorado. But the plodding of more graduate work was not a match for the lure of acting. So Joe became the journeyman actor: Rock Island, Fort Dodge, Madison, Shakespeare-in-the-Street – dinner theater, musicals, comedy, the occasional serious play. He did it all and he did it well. I saw a few of the performances over the years, and he was versatile, determined, and a growing master of his profession. The mark of the master (speaking as a rank amateur) is flow: unself-consciousness that one is acting – and the story and character effortlessly propel the whole effect. All I could say to Joe on these occasions was “Wow!”

When I stayed with him in these years, I marveled at his eclectic tastes. He loved the Metropolitan Opera, classical music – Satie was a favorite. But so was Irish music, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Joanie Mitchell, and Jacques Brel. As you know, he was a fine singer. I also cherish a recording I have of him from a 1974 concert at the College of St. Catherine. He sang “Out Under the Winter Sky”, and also a duet, “The Old Man’s Lament,” with his friend, the composer and musician Michael Joncas. They were highlights of the evening.

Finally, came Chicago. That part of his life you know far better than I.

The letters grew less frequent but we kept in touch by phone and the occasional visit. Despite our different paths, each time we talked it was as if the friendship took up where it had last left off, as though time passing was a mere inconvenience. I kept him up to date on the doings of our friends, my children and my spouse, our careers: the stuff that makes-up our lives.

He called last year to tell me of his diagnosis. I finally got to see him in the spring. We spent a half-day together with lunch and a visit to Millenium Park. I could tell he was weak, but he was working and enthusiastic about what he was doing. He was also annoyed about his health, but accepting of whatever it would bring. Options were thinning out. We reminisced a bit, but he was more interested in what he was doing now and how those gray mutton-chops he was sporting fit into the picture. He was a bit out of breath during our walk, so we stopped until his energy returned. At the end of our time together, I hugged him and said that I would be back in the Fall. He smiled and said he looked forward to it.

I miss Joe. But I take comfort in this: he had a wonderful life. You Chicago theater people became his family, his neighbors, his community, his life. It was a wonderful life. And he made my life – and I hope yours – all the richer for having known him, and for loving him.

Joe: Thank you for your friendship, for being a flinty old soul, and for making all of us so rich in our memories and experiences of you.

Thank you all for graciously permitting me to share these thoughts with you about this most remarkable man and good friend.