Remembering Dan Wakefield

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
June 3rd, 2024
In memory

When acclaimed author Dan Wakefield passed away on March 13, the world lost a voice of compassion and conscience, and I lost a kind and generous mentor. Dan was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, memoirist, and writer of non-fiction books on topics including the world of Spanish Harlem and the literary and cultural scene of his eponymous “New York in the Fifties.” In his first assignment for the Nation magazine, Dan covered the trial of two men charged and then acquitted of the murder of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old Black boy accused of whistling at a White woman in Mississippi. The experience moved him to a life of civil rights advocacy.

Dan’s memoir, “Returning,” chronicles his journey from his Baptist upbringing to the atheism of his college years and beyond, followed by his return to church at Kings Chapel in Boston.

After the publication of “Returning,” Dan began to offer workshops and write books about spiritually-themed topics including writing a spiritual autobiography, the role of spirituality in creativity, everyday miracles and the “hijacking of Jesus” by the religious right.

Obituaries and tributes to Dan from news sources including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and his hometown Indianapolis Star all describe the importance he gave to friendships, mentors, and guides, both living role models and authors he knew only from reading their works.

He honored and enjoyed his relationships with old and new friends, teachers, college professors, mentors, and established authors and paid it forward in his kindness and generosity toward students and aspiring writers.

It was my great good fortune to meet Dan at a weekend workshop he taught in writing a spiritual autobiography and to maintain a connection with him for the next 30 years. I had little interest in writing a memoir when I was still in my 40s, but I knew of Dan’s reputation as a writer and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn from one of the masters.

When I walked into class that first evening, I didn’t know that he had been the screenwriter of a TV series, James at 15, that my wife and I had enjoyed 13 years earlier. The series portrayed the life of an adolescent boy who had recently moved from Oregon to Boston with his family.

As transplants to Boston ourselves, we enjoyed seeing our adopted city portrayed on television and appreciated the sensitivity and humanity that the writer showed in his depiction of James.

That same sensitivity and humanity characterized the man himself as he shared stories of his own early life, the people who helped him along the way, and his journey from belief to unbelief and back again.

As he conducted the course, Dan showed his openness, humility, and reverence for the stories we told, affirming our challenges, laughing with us at our foibles, and sharing his own. With our permission he later included some of our essays in his book “The Story of Your Life: Writing A Spiritual Autobiography.” When the book was published, he invited his co-authors to a reception where he gave each of us a miniature pumpkin as a token of our achievement and a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever, but the gifts Dan gave me will last a lifetime. He gave me the courage and confidence to write, and that turned into this monthly column that I have been writing in New England Psychologist for the past 31 years. When I published a selection of these essays in book form, Dan gave me valuable advice and a generous endorsement. He affirmed my conviction that the stories of our lives are sacred, and this has guided my work as a clinical psychologist and teacher.

In my work with psychology interns, I made a practice of helping them reflect on their training year by drawing, writing about and sharing something of the experience with each other at the end of their internship. After I retired from clinical work, I began offering the Spiritual Autobiography Workshop to various groups, and once again, Dan was there to offer his encouragement and advice. When COVID-19 forced the workshop to meet on Zoom, Dan even made a guest appearance from his home in Indianapolis.

I am just one among the countless number of people Dan influenced through his writing, teaching and the example of his life, so I claim no special place in his affections. He had the gift of making you feel known and appreciated by always being there to answer an emailed question or to comment on an observation.

When I wrote to compliment him on his moving Boston Globe tribute to his old friend and fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut, Dan replied with an equally moving description of Mr. Vonnegut’s funeral. Through the power of Dan’s words, I was there with him, paying my respects to a man I knew only from his writing.

I recently came across a story about Dan on the website Indianapolis Monthly, originally published on January 3, 2017 and now published again as a memorial on the occasion of his death. The title, “Dan Wakefield Needs a Ride,” is followed by the line, “If you know Dan Wakefield long enough, chances are, sooner or later, you will give him a ride.” It is the story of a man who chose to live without a car in a series of big cities and became known for asking people he knew even slightly for a ride. I had my turn a little more than five years after we first met when I drove Dan back to the hotel where he was staying in Boston after an event at a suburban bookstore. How he got there in the first place is anyone’s guess. My guess is that he simply asked for a ride.

For me, the experience of ferrying Dan back to his hotel and his habit of asking for rides illustrate his expectation that people are as willing to help others as he was. It is the mark of a humble and generous man who spoke to what is best in others and offered his best in return.

In recent years as first his eyesight and then his general health failed, Dan and I lost touch. There was so much more that I wanted to share with him, but his work here was winding down. Dan was fond of a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” He lived by these words, and in our world that needs kindness more than ever, we can honor his memory and continue his work by doing the same.

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