My friend Patrick F. McManus died last week.
The best-selling author’s passing has received due notice in the news media around the world (my son read about it in Europe), but I’m pretty sure most people don’t realize what a rock star he really was, which I think was fine with him. A modest guy who grew up in the outdoors around Sandpoint and lived much of his adult life in Spokane, he wrote and taught, took care of his family, was generous with his time and talents and was an all-around nice guy.
It’s the nice guy I remember most. When my oldest son (the one mentioned above) finished writing a novel the summer after he graduated from high school, Pat, who was quite busy at the time, was kind enough to read it and provide a gentle critique. I might point out that this son makes a living now as a freelance writer. There may not be a straight line from that first novel’s analysis to today’s career, but his path was certainly aided by that helpful beginning.
In the early 2000s, I became editor of Eastern Washington University’s alumni magazine and was charged with overseeing its content overhaul and design change. One of the first things I did was ask writers who had some affiliation with the university to contribute a short piece for an issue – not about the university, but about whatever they wanted. Pat, who had taught English and journalism there from 1959-1983, was the first person I asked.
All I wanted was 500 words, and if you’re a writer, you know that you hardly get to say hello in 500 words. Writing short is harder than writing long. Pat agreed immediately and turned in a story about a deadline situation he found himself in with an editor from Field & Stream, a national magazine which ran a monthly column by him for many years. The piece he wrote for me was filled with typical self-deprecating humor. It was a McManus classic.
Pat, our photographer and I hauled equipment (I was charged with toting his old manual Royal typewriter) down an embankment to the Little Spokane River to take what turned out to be a nice shot of Pat straddling a downed tree and typing away. He had told me that he defaulted to that typewriter “when I get furious with my computer.” There on the banks of the river, you could envision his beloved Rancid Crabtree fishing right next to him. Took most of the day to get this done, and for his time and writing Pat was paid precisely zero dollars.
I was also a member of the EWU Friends of the Library, and in the spring we’d hold a literary event at Eastern’s JFK Library with a speaker of note. The first year we did this I asked Pat, but on this occasion he hesitated for a moment. He had already had a stroke, and while he was busy writing his Bo Tully mystery novels at the time, he was limiting his speaking engagements because he sometimes, especially on days when he was a little tired, had to struggle a bit to find the right words. The words were there, but he had some moments when he couldn’t reach them as quickly as he’d like.
We came up with a plan. Since he didn’t drive in the evenings any more, I’d be his chauffeur. If he found himself uncomfortable in the speaking environment, he’d signal me, and I’d step in, wrap up the talk and usher him off to the autograph table. But Pat had a great evening, handled the Q&A beautifully and was more than gracious with his time signing autographs and talking with those gathered. During the ride back to his home, he expressed how much he had enjoyed himself. Again, he did this for free.
He said yes another time when I asked if he’d allow himself to be a “prize” at the library’s Oktoberfest fund-raising auction, in which he would dine with the high bidder plus five guests at the Davenport Hotel. It was a great prize package, and it went for a tidy sum. Again, I provided transportation for Pat, and I cannot begin to express how sincerely engaged he was with those gathered at the table. No ego, just good conversation.
My friend Bill Stimson, who is an author in his own right and currently a journalism professor at EWU, has had the privilege of being a close friend of Pat’s since Pat was his instructor at Eastern way back when. He recalls an incident about 20 years ago when he was attending a conference at Annapolis, Maryland, and went into a book store, which is his habit wherever he goes. There he saw a featured display of McManus books and called his wife over to see it.
“The man who worked there overheard our conversation and came over to us,” Bill said. “’You know Pat McManus?’ the man asked with real enthusiasm. ‘Tell me what he’s like.’ He was so excited to meet someone who knew such a famous author.”
The New York Times best-selling author really, really was famous … well, everywhere, but not all that much in his own home town, which Spokane had become, where fame tends to swell to heroic proportions for those who hit, throw, catch or dribble a ball.
Again, he was good with that and rather than seeking the spotlight that was surely deserved for a person whom a good number of us consider to have been America’s foremost master of outdoors and humor writing, he’d really rather have been off riding with a deer on a bicycle. And if you don’t know what that’s about, check out some of his books.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at email@example.com.