Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My Friend Jim

This is what it feels like to lose an old friend:
A sudden sense of absence.
Thirty years of shared history suddenly remote, cut off.
Thoughts of things you would have said at your next get-together, had there been a next time.
The world getting just a little smaller.

Last week came the news that my friend Jim Pietrusz had died on March 25th after a year-long struggle with melanoma, a year of ups and downs. This is one of those times when the news hits hard and only gets bleaker as the loss sinks in. I didn't get to see Jim often since we moved from Wisconsin, but we'd get together about once a year and catch up on what we'd each been reading. I feel bad that the last time I saw him, about a year ago, our meeting was shorter than planned because of a mix-up on my part, and our next meeting last fall had to be cancel because of a family crisis that sent me scrambling to Arkansas on short notice.

Our paths first crossed as a result of the 1983 Marquette Tolkien Conference planned by Taum Santoski, Marquette archivist Chuck Elston, and Archives secretary/receptionist Terry Margharita. Although I don't think Jim was at the conference, after it was over Terry M. had the good idea that she and I might teach a Continuing Ed (night school) class on Tolkien; I think this wd have been in the spring of 1984. This went really well, with myself and some of the students gathering after each night class at the local I-Hop for much, much more conversation. After the class had run its course, several of us decided to continuing meeting, among whom were myself, Jim, Jeff Long, Jan Noble (now Jan Long), and Dave Hoose. That group,* now called The Burrahobbits, is still meeting once a month, almost thirty years later, though Jim eventually dropped out of it and I wasn't able to attend meetings after I moved two thousand miles away. I also taught several more Continuing Ed classes, with Jim et al as the core audience, mostly on my own (Tolkien: Beyond The Lord of the Rings; Before Tolkien; After Tolkien) but also in tandem with Jim (fantasy based on fairy-tale and folk-tale), and once Jim taught one himself (on the Arthurian myth). But mostly in those latter years I'd contact Jim when I was going to be in the Midwest, generally once or possibly twice a year, and we'd get-together for lunch or an afternoon discussing books or any of Jim's other myriad interests.

Jim was the most voracious reader I've ever known, and the most dedicated book-buyer. He at some point before I knew him had decided he wanted to own the books he read and read the books he owned, so he started book-buying on a vast scale: several hundred books a year. So many books that in the pre-amazon/bookfinder/ab-libris et al days he had his own shelf behind the counter at Websters' Books on Downer, where they'd special-order books for him and he'd pick up one or two from that holds shelf each time he came in, while at home he had a big wooden box built and placed on his front porch for the mailman to deposit packages in, invariably containing books new and old. It must have been a rare day that didn't bring a new book.

And he was methodical, reading all those books in the order he bought them.** When he moved into a new house (early/mid 90s, I think) he designed a beautifully wood-paneled library, the kind of room every book-lover and dedicated reader dreams of having in his or her own home, but the books soon overflowed his shelves and filled the floor, still all in their proper order. So that whenever I saw him again after an absence, I'd ask "when are you up to?" and he'd reply "April 2009" or something of the sort, the date lagging a few years behind the present. When I first knew him he was only a year and a half or so behind, but as time went by the gap widened and I think it was up to about three years or so last I knew.

And his range of interests was wide: fantasy (which is what drew us together -- he's the one who introduced me to authors as different as Wm Hope Hodgson and Philip Pullman), literature (I still have several volumes of lesser-known works by Conrad he gave me during one of his periodic book-purges of older books he didn't intend to read again to make room for more books), comparative mythology (writers like Eliade and especially Joseph Campbell, whom he rated far higher than I ever would), and, what came to be his dominating obsession (just as my own is Tolkien), King Arthur. Jim had always been interested in the King Arthur legend, but during the early years of our friendship this became his central and abiding focus, and he set out trying to amass a collection of all things Arthurian -- a massive undertaking. I know he had made arrangements for it to go to a university library, I assume as the Pietrusz Collection, so others shd eventually be able to benefit from his pursuit of his bliss (as Campbell wd have put it).

So, I'll miss him. When we first met, I was someone who'd uprooted himself and moved cross-country from Arkansas to Wisconsin, while Jim was a lifelong Milwaukee native who remembered back to the days when Milwaukee had streetcars. He'd also attended Marquette years before I did and so had that shared experience, being fully in agreement over who were the good guys of that department (first and foremost, Dr. McCabe). We also shared a love of cats (his Nimue lived to be twenty, and after her death he had the beautiful wooden box containing her remains put on the windowsill in his library that'd been her favorite spot for sunbeams. We were very different in our approaches and interests, but we shared a lot of common ground, too. And we enjoyed each other's company, and I think the exchanges did us both good. Talking to him, I always learned something I hadn't known before. Now that's over, but I'm glad for all the times we did get together and for all those many conversations.

--John R.

*along with many additions and otherwise over the years, of course

**he did allow himself some flexibility, so that when he came to the first book in a trilogy he'd read the second and third in quick succession -- unless the first proved so hopeless that he moved all three to the discard pile. But then, he said if he didn't buy all three volumes as they came out the second or third might be out of print by the time he got to the first

 ***as well as seminary, early on


Matt Fisher said...


I'm so sorry to hear of Jim's passing. While I didn't know him nearly as well as you, I also have good memories of the few times I spent with him.

May he rest in the embrace of the Divine.


Fangsy said...


I hope this comment finds you well, John, and isn't a source of some form of grief to bring this post back to mind, but I thought I might share what I believe to be the strange coincidence that led me here:

I was recently purchasing original hardcovers of some books I read in my youth (a quartet by Laurence Yep—unwitting but at least semi-appropriate reads for this Asian American Heritage month) and noticed the rear of one of them had a few dates, partly hand-written, partly stamped. By chance, one happened to refer to my fourth birthday.

I was reciting this fact in discussion over the phone with a friend, and picked up the sequel I thought had the date to reference it, only to discover it did not have the date of my birth, but a date six days later. Being handwritten, I concluded I'd imagined things, misreading a date into an eminently familiar one through the strange machinations of the subconscious and a kind of confirmation bias.

I was finishing off the actual re-read of the first book (Dragon of the Lost Sea, should you be curious), and discovered I didn't imagine it: there it was, below a stamped date, my birthday (plus four years) handwritten in the back of this book I'd purchased used to have a nice, clean hardcover copy for the rest of my life.

"What a strange coincidence," I thought: not only my birthday and a close-by companion date in another book from the series, but both previously owned by someone who wrote dates in it at all. A technologically-limited library checking things out to patrons, perhaps?

Sated with the knowledge that I'd indeed found my birthday in a book, a perfectly enjoyable coincidence, I got to page 150 in the sequel (Dragon Steel), and noticed that there was a name stamped at the bottom left corner. A sort of confused haze dropped into my brain: Hadn't I just seen a name stamped in the corner just like that? And wasn't it the exact same name?!

So I drew the first book back down off the shelf, flipping rapidly through it, and finding that, yes, I had in fact seen it before: on page 150 of each book there was stamped: "JIM PIETRUSZ".

A bookplate in the first book re-affirmed this, a gnome or dwarf drawn, woodcut-style, with a cane and carrying books, marked "EX LIBRIS JIM PIETRUSZ".

Now utterly mystified, I checked back at where I'd purchased these books from via Abebooks: one came from a bookshop in Houston, TX (in another coincidence, my father's hometown—though with one that size, less surprising on the whole), and the other from a bookshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I took to the search engines, and I found my way here. While it's hardly a guarantee, there seems to be enough in common here that I suspect these may both have been from your friend Jim Pietrusz--fantasy books, one even drawn from a used home in Milwaukee, and showing the signs of a devoted collector (I've since decided these may perhaps be the handwritten dates of the times the books were read).

While I'd hoped to find Jim himself, it seems that's unfortunately not the chance I have, but I thought perhaps it might be good to know that these two, at least, are in the hands of someone who loves the books he once had (now dustjacket-protected by my own hands, even) and set for a happy life of appreciation. I'm sorry for your loss, these many years on, but I hope this is a good, if small and perhaps somewhat distant, tribute to Jim and his love of books and collecting them—even if it's just yet another pile of coincidences and another Jim entirely, I hope such appreciation and treatment of beloved fantasy books might serve to honour him all the same.

It's many years late, but thank you for sharing his story and your memories.