April 20, 2007

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Hoosier literary icon wanted a better world

Shirley Vogler MeisterAmerican literary icon Kurt Vonnegut’s death occurred during National Poetry Month.

Although the Indianapolis native was best known for prose, he wrote poetry, too. In fact, his obituary in The New York Times on April 12 closed with lines from Vonnegut’s “Requiem,” which concluded A Man Without a Country, his last book:

“When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
perhapsfrom the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
‘It is done.’
People did not like it here.”

This is one of Vonnegut’s core ideas developed in different ways in much of his work. Although I have not read everything he wrote, I did once correspond with him through letters.

At the time, I handled publicity for the Indianapolis Maennerchor. My husband, Paul, has been a baritone with the chorus for more than 40 years.

My historical research revealed that Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather, Karl Barus, was the Maennerchor’s musical director from 1882-96. The chorus was founded in 1854.

As a token of their esteem, the Maennerchor presented Barus with a silver crown so I was searching for that.

Through Vonnegut’s letters and a phone conversation with his brother, Bernard, a physicist who died in 1997, I learned that neither remembered the crown. However, both promised that, if they should locate it in storage, they would return it to the Maennerchor. Apparently, it was never found.

Shortly after that, Vonnegut was in Indianapolis to speak at Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler Univesity. My friend, Jan, and I went. Another friend, Pete, who couldn’t attend, asked me just before I left if I would have his copy of the newest Vonnegut book autographed by the famous author.

At a reception following Vonnegut’s program, Jan and I realized that was improbable since a huge crowd surrounded the author. Then, as we talked with a friend who is a professor, Jan alerted me: Vonnegut was quickly striding in our direction.

Prodded by friends, I stepped aside directly in his path, extended my hand and introduced myself. He graciously remembered me and my quest for the Maennerchor crown, again promising to return it if it was located. He also autographed Pete’s book then swiftly exited out a side door.

I share this memory to show that fame did not change who Vonnegut really was—a talented writer with a sage and satirical wit. Although he was a humanist, through his often irreverent work, readers learn that humans have a long way to go to create a better world. However, most of us believe that remedies come with grace-filled positivity and with an also gracious God in charge.

May God’s love surprise you, Mr. Vonnegut!

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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