September 26, 2019

Throwback Thursday: Will the real Kurt Vonnegut please stand up.

Jim Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, Mellisa Wolfe-McNally, NKU, May 1983

As you can see, Jim Wolfe was a short man. Around 1979, he became the influencer on the nominating committee for the Eugene V. Debs Award. Today the award is given those who contribute to the advancement of industrial unionism, social justice and world peace.

Previous to Dad taking over, the honor was given to union presidents and others within the organized labor movement for their tireless contribution. Dad had seen the writing on the wall: The great days of the US unions were waning. So he decided to do something drastic—give the award to the people who were putting unions in front of the public. Some of the winners during his tenure were singer Pete Seeger, writer Studs Terkel, actor Ed Asner, director John Sayles and writer Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s contribution was Walter F. Starbuck’s labor union history in Jailbird.

Dad and Vonnegut remained penpals until Dad’s death in 1993. Dad wrote six-page letters and Vonnegut hammered out a paragraph in reply on his Coronamatic 2200 typewriter. In 1983, Vonnegut spoke at Northern Kentucky University and my sister and I took Dad to see him before his speech.

Despite his many honors, Vonnegut talked proudly of wining the Debs award. He spoke of grabbing a bite to eat on award weekend, but having to help Dad across a busy, divided highway amid honking cars (so much for Hoosier Hospitality) in Terre Haute to get there. I asked him about the idea of taking NKU’s $5,000 speaking fee. He noted that colleges were not as poor as you might think and were paying questionable politicians ten times that much. So he was not only a more thoughtful speaker, but a bargain.

Despite what Chucky Shields says in his Vonnegut bio And So It Goes, I found Vonnegut approachable and affable. I don’t know for sure, but maybe being back with folks of Midwest sensibilities he shed the armor to reveal the average Joe that grew up 100 miles from here. Vonnegut smoked a cigarette and I asked him, if at 61, why he’d felt no ill effects from his smoking. He thought his passion for swimming as a kid had given him big, healthy lungs that cancer found tough to defeat.

He talked with joy about the private adoption he and wife Jill Krementz had just finished for their daughter Lily. He later joked to Dad in a letter that if anything should happen to him and Jill that Lily should be raised by Jim Wolfe of Cincinnati.

Dad’s influence on the Debs Award continued after his passing, with the honor going to columnist Jim Hightower, playwright Howard Zinn, humorist Molly Ivins, actor Bobby Duvall and actor Danny Glover. While I was producing The Gary Burbank Show at WLW radio, Michael Moore and crew came by to film part of The Big One (yes, I’m in the movie for almost a full fourth of a second). I told Micheal that if Dad hadn’t passed away, Moore would have received the Debs award for his groundbreaking Roger and Me.

I think he almost cried. It was a pets-or-meat moment for both of us.

Read more Throwback Thursday stories.

Learn how this photo was copied from a 35mm Kodachrome slide with a Moment 10x Macro lens and an iPhone.

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