Fred Vandegrift, a newspaper man from deep in his bones and his soul, died on August 28 in Wichita. He will be remembered for his energy and passion, his keen sense for business and his sharp eye for what was on the horizon.
In Fred’s most glorious days when I knew him best, he was the advertising manager for the Salina Journal under the legendary Whitley Austin, the newspaper’s editor and president. The two of them ensured that The Journal for more than 40 years was the most widely read, and advertised, newspaper in north central and northwest Kansas.
When Austin retired, in 1975, Vandegrift became The Journal’s publisher; a decade later he left the newspaper and bought Consolidated Printing in Salina but continued as an executive with The Journal’s parent company, Harris Enterprises, his passion for newspapers never wavering.
Fred’s snappy magnetism was striking, how young he always looked, blonde, trim and tall, his sharp clothes, full head of hair, posture board straight, voice at full-throat, commanding, ever keen for the well-placed, appropriate expletive – a golden man, he seemed. People who knew him will talk of his energy, his talent as a businessman, his appetite for fun. Now he is gone, at 87.
FRED REMINDS us, as we move along on this dear Earth, that death is no longer a distant concern. News of it surrounds us, in headlines over the world and, ever more often, just around the corner. Our friends, our relatives, leave with alarming frequency; the losses, the tragedies mount until it seems more than we should bear. For the living, death can be exhausting.
And through the experience of life in an imperfect world we learn that most things break ‒ especially hearts.
“What the years of living give us is not wisdom, but scar tissue,” wrote Stuart Awbrey, who edited newspapers in Iowa and Kansas and whose prose gleamed with clarity.
“The best we can hope for is someone to share the anxiety, the pain, the fear. The lucky person is one who can call two or three others to his side when he needs the comfort of a hand, a voice, a smile. (Or thinks he needs that, which is the same thing.)”
Awbrey spent a good part of his final years in and out of M.D. Anderson in Houston, the cancer hospital that specializes in the kind of tumors that afflicted him for more than 13 years. He died at 67. Far too young. His first trip there was for a laryngectomy that took his voice box. He learned to speak by gulping air, then enunciating words by forcing the air back through what was left of his throat. His writing, though, never lost its brilliance. The cancer would return, in his bones, his mouth and jaw. Repeated surgeries left him with half a jaw, no tongue, no ability to swallow. No way at all to speak. He “talked” by writing notes on a pad. He lived with a tube in his nose. And yet I’ve known few men so elegant and fearless and ever hopeful as Stuart, staring death in the face, knowing he would not win.
IT WASN’T about dying, he said. It was about how one lived. “My own faith,” he said, “was formed by Joseph Conrad who, along with many other novelists and Tolkien’s Hobbits, found that our existence is a seeking without a finding, that the beauty of life is in the search without putting too much hope in ever getting an answer.”
But others, like Theodore Dreiser, (“Sister Carrie”…”An American Tragedy”) saw a world of profound disorder, a constant adventure but with no navigator, no chart, no order in their stars to guide them, a universe that was purposeless, impotent, unintelligible. Which is it to be?
Stuart managed for years to face down death as it raged about him, in friends lost, in leaders assassinated, in the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia, genocide in Africa, and in the cancer wards he knew too well. Against all that, he found ways to search into the abyss, to find that the answer to “Why?” lay in the beauty of the search.
Always, the search. He could not see it otherwise. “I can’t afford to believe it, not and get through this day and this night. The dark is beyond our endurance,” he wrote from a hospital bed.
In our endless searching, we hope at least that when we come to that black abyss we can offer a feeble prayer, and that in it are some answers.
My generation is now at that time in which we receive the call or read the news that another friend is gone, another summons to the bonds of institutional grief, to cope in that web of death; another funeral procession to approach a church and on to a cemetery where we find the people who had settled a town, who had helped it move upward, who may have touched our lives, now among and beneath the head stones. Another chapter is closed with flowers on a coffin in an open grave.
We move away to talk as the bells strike the hour, as children run along in laughter and older voices mingle. It’s a strange lingering, knowing in our hearts that the days of sweetness, the interludes of simplicity in life are slipping away, one friend, one spouse, one relative at a time, as we hold a cap over our heart, peering into that black abyss, hoping for an answer.