One last, long chapter

BY VANESSA HOUK

While he was kind of hoping to live to see one hundred, it seems that the end might be near. At 97, it’s been a pretty incredible life, a life well lived.

On each of our last several visits he pulled me aside and showed me a line of books on the bookshelves in the living room. “I wrote these books,” he said proudly. Dwight Bennett Newton authored more than 70 westerns, a musical about the life of Jesse James, 45 Hollywood screenplays in the late 1950’s (Wagon Train and Death Valley Days) and 175 short stories, many of which were printed in the pulp magazines of the 1950’s. Dwight wrote under several aliases including D.B. Newton, Clement Hardin, Ford Logan, Hank Mitchum, and Dan Temple.

A fine life, indeed.

Even still, he’d tell you that his best creations were his two daughters, Jennifer and Janet. Once, after watching his grandson, Jason roughhouse with our oldest daughter, he confided that while he wasn’t the type of dad who got down on the floor to play, he was impressed by Jason’s hands on approach to parenting. His family would tell you that he was quick to pay attention and that his calm presence centers each of them to this day.

With all that Dwight accomplished, nothing was more valued than his marriage and friendship with Mary Jane (Kregel), a marriage which has spanned more than seventy two years. A few winters ago she wrote that their “lives were full of music to listen to and interesting books to read and what more could anyone want?” Often when we visited I would see her reach for his hand and as they held each other I’d hear her ask, “How are you doing Dwight?” and in their presence I would think , “this is the stuff that  real love stories are made of.” There is a keen sense of kindness between them.

And his memory! He used to tell me the most incredible things, once even recollecting the title of his elementary school primer as though that was an ordinary thing. On nights when we visited, we’d get him to reminisce and he told us how the Army brought them out west to Bend. They lived in a little house near what would become the downtown and eventually bought the house next door, the home they’ve lived in all these years and where, if he has his way, he will take his last breath. His office where he wrote most of his books is still there in the back and  as he noted in the introduction of one of his last books, Born to the Brand, “I sometimes have an eerie feeling that the millions of words I’ve pounded out, here in this little room are somehow embedded in the walls and ceiling and at any moment could start sifting quietly and insidiously around me.”

He played a hand in forming the Western Writers of America (WWA) and is its last surviving founder.  WWA works to promote literature of the American West.

Over the years Dwight and Mary Jane filled the little white house with music. He loved to sit at the piano and practice tunes. He was good too, often playing for friends and family and up until not that many years ago, “playing for the old folks”, as he said at a nearby retirement center.

I owe a lot to this man, in fact he was largely responsible for teaching his grandsons (one of whom is my husband, Jason) how to be good men. He is, for many of us, a compass and our touchstone. It’s hard to imagine a life without him in it ,even as he’s giving us this one final lesson in letting go. Somehow I’d like to think that in these last days even as he sleeps, he is surrounded by all of the characters he dreamt up over the years. I imagine he’s hearing some of his old tunes too.

Over the years he gave me powerful advice on writing and taught me how he learned point of view. He told me that as he was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he was a voracious reader. He began studying L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and as he read through each book he would try to figure out how the story might unfold in the eyes of each subsequent character. Understanding that the lion’s experience was different from that of the scarecrows, for example, taught him what he needed to know in order to tell many of his own tales and as a young writer myself, while I took that advice in, he made an even deeper impression that changed how I began to view the lives of the people around me and became my own standard. Outlined by his words and actions, he taught me how to be kinder and more empathetic towards others which is something that will go on even as this last chapter is coming to its end.