Last night at the Bean Broker Coffee House in downtown Chadron, several of us gathered to raise a glass to our colleague, friend and mentor, Dr. Michael Percy Cartwright, who passed away on May 22. There may have been some sense of coming full circle for Mike since he died doing yard work at his farmhouse near Whitney, Nebraska–the same house he was raised in and later inherited and reoccupied when he returned to the region to teach at Chadron State College, after spending years in teaching and administration at California State University in Bakersfield. And, we learned last night, the same house and yard where his own father had died.
But Mike was only 72, and the loss has hit our community very hard. We were so looking forward to another summer of coffee and conversation out at Cora’s Place in Whitney–a little lunch spot he had set up in his Grandmother’s old house in Whitney.
There were plans for a film series this year, and concerts under the starts. He was repainting his old farm house. He was looking forward to spending more and more time with his wife Jeanetta, as she inched closer to her retirement from the University Library System at UNL.
But it was wonderful to gather with friends at the Bean Broker last night and reminisce about Mike, and how we will miss him so much.
Below is a little remembrance that I wrote in honor of Mike for the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society Newsletter, forthcoming. Mike and I were both very involved with the Sandoz Society, and my long-winded thoughts may not make it into the newsletter in this full form, so I present them here.
Michael Cartwright: A Remembrance
At the memorial service held in Whitney for Mike Cartwright on a stormy Wednesday afternoon in late May, his life-long friend Dennis Bourret played The William Tell Overature on violin (he later spoke of how he and Mike were great fans of The Lone Ranger), and as the final notes rose to their exciting conclusion, thunder shook the old Methodist Church—the overflowing crowd laughed nervously at the import.
We gathered to celebrate the life of a man who made some noise, indeed. Who had an impact on every community he served. The family and friends who rose to speak all echoed the same theme: Mike was one of the most generous people they had ever known—generous with his time, his insights and his interests. Mike was a great mentor. And, more than anything else, Mike was a great listener. When you sat down to conversation with Mike, he seemed genuinely interested in what you had to say. He listened closely, and responded in kind. At some point, in every conversation, he would ask, “what have you been reading lately?”
When I arrived at Chadron State College in 2011, Mike had little reason to know or care about me, a lowly writing instructor on a one-year appointment. But Mike took time to get to know me. We had similar backgrounds: grew up in small, isolated, rural parts of Western Nebraska. Family involved in farming. University of Nebraska English Department graduates. Returning to Nebraska after a long stints in major metropolitan areas (he Bakersfield, me Phoenix). Learning about my background, and my interests in literature of the American West, Mike turned me on to the Mari Sandoz movement taking place on campus. It was only years later that I learned of his early role in the society, and bringing the Sandoz legacy to campus. Mike was instrumental in my early involvement with High Plains, and the history and writing of this region—for which I will be forever grateful.
At the end of my first year, Mike stopped by the office I shared with an adjunct and handed me a letter of support. He had written it without my knowledge or solicitation. He handed it to me. “Somewhere, some time this may come in handy.” It was a glowing letter (Mike, we all know, was a talented writer of fiction), and his letter did eventually wind up in my application materials when a permanent position teaching American Literature opened up in the department. I have been here ever since.
In my first few years at CSC, before Mike retired, he guided me through the sound and the fury of academe. Beyond helping me to get involved with the culture and heritage of the region, he helped to mentor me in the classroom, where I learned to embrace his style of free-range discussions of literature. He had me out to dinners at his farmhouse with interesting guests and foods and conversation that partially realized my expectations of what the life of a college professor could be. And when I experienced a crisis in my own life, he encouraged me stay at his farmhouse one long, cold winter, until I could put myself back on track. That Ash Creek sojourn did the trick, just as he knew it would.
At Mike’s service, his great nephew, Taylor Geu, spoke of these traits in his uncle. He pointed to the same examples of generosity, of genuine interest and care. He was a champion of Taylor’s writing, encouraging him to share it at family gatherings. Mike encouraged his grand-nephew, then a high school student in a small town in the southeast corner of South Dakota, to sign up for the Storycatcher Writing Workshop on our campus in 2013. When we celebrated the writing of the participants at a cookout at the State Park, Mike—who we had not seen around campus in quite some time—appeared at the festivities and even helped flip some burgers. I had no idea Mike would be there–but somehow was not surprised in the least when he showed up. That was the great thing about Mike—he was always showing up when you least expected, and you always were glad to see him.
I was shocked and saddened by the news of Mike’s death. I will miss seeing him around campus, catching up on all the gossip in our offices. I will miss meeting him out at “Cora’s Place” in Whitney for coffee. I will miss our long, lingering lunches and dinners and drafts. And, most of all, I will miss that generous spirit—that intense interest in others. I will miss our conversations. I will miss responding to his eternal question, “what have you been reading lately…”