Through the help of the Alumni Relations Director at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls I was able to track down Zane Chaffee the literature professor who turned this northern Wisconsin farm boy into someone who could not only crave literature but also create it himself. My recent book "Continental Drifting" is dedicated to Zane Chaffee. The letter I wrote to him transmitting the book follows:
Professor Zane Chaffee
Grantsburg, Wisconsin 54840
I was able to track you down through the UW River Falls Alumni Relations Director. Several years ago I wrote to you when I couldn’t remember the name of a couple of stories you had us read in English 252 (Literature – Comedy) during winter quarter of the 1970-1971 school year. One was a story titled “The Richest Man in Bogota” and the other was Tolstoy’s excellent story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” I wanted to read the former because I was about to embark on a trip to Bogota. I wanted to re-read the latter because that story had a huge influence on me in my 31 year career as a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. You can’t count how many times I asked a developer “just how damned much land do you people need anyway?” I thought of you and that Tolstoy story each time I asked that question!
Also last time I contacted you I told you about my first travel book (fourth published book in total) “Somewhere South of Miami” that was published in 2002. It was a mostly-true tale about how I used travel in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico to heal from my divorce from my former wife Ruth James, daughter of former UW-RF wrestling coach Byron James.
I have continued my writing now that I am retired and recently had two new books come out in print (there is a third book about travel in South Africa that is in press). One of those new books, “Continental Drifting” is dedicated to you. The dedication reads “To Zane Chaffee – The world’s finest literature professor.” I made that factual statement because in my book you are. Your Mark Twain-like wit and humor converted this northern Wisconsin farm boy (I’m from Barron County originally) from someone who was mainly content reading the labels on sacks of cattle feed into someone who craved literature. You never made us read a book. You made us want to read a book! You never bored us with dissecting words and word phrases and then making futile attempts at uncovering the author’s hidden meaning (there usually are no hidden meanings). Instead you helped us understand how words in print made us feel and you helped us understand our feelings.
Chapter 6 of “Continental Drifting” is titled “Where Papa Used to Fight.” It’s a story about my time on the Bahamian island of Bimini – the place where Hemingway lived when he penned his book “Islands in the Stream.” Beginning on book page 121 through page 124 I tell a story about you and how you influenced me so much. I also recount the startlingly hilarious way that you entered the classroom on the first day of class for English 252 more than 40 years ago.
The last time I saw you in person was September 3, 1977, the day after my oldest daughter Jennifer was born. I stopped at Swede’s Standard station (across the street from May and Johnson Halls) to tell Swede that Jennifer had arrived. You were there picking up your car from being serviced. Swede asked me about Jennifer and asked “Does she look like you or does she look like Ruth?” I thought about it a second and said “You know, Swede, she’s just this little pink wrinkled thing.” You burst into laughter and said “Craig, you’re the first father I’ve ever heard tell the truth about his newborn child.” You even made me laugh when I wasn’t taking a literature class from you.
When I sent you a copy of “Somewhere South of Miami” you wrote and said you looked forward to reading my “magic.” If I was successful you may also find magic in “Continental Drifting.”
I hope all is well with you and yours. Living in Grantsburg, you are just down the road from the Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area. It was one of the natural and wild areas that had a profound influence on me and helped shape the environmental ethic that I took with me throughout my career. I hope you will think of me the next time you are out there looking at birds.
I don’t get back to Wisconsin very much any longer but in late June I will be in that state to our west that begins with an M and has a professional football team with purple jerseys (I refuse to utter that state’s name – it’s a Badger thing). My oldest daughter (Jennifer mentioned above) will be getting married at my former wife’s home north of Brainerd and that isn’t too far from Grantsburg. I just might have to come over to Grantsburg and take you out for a beer or two so I can once again hear you tell stories like those that made me want to read and tell stories like you did and to eventually turn my own stories into books.
Stay well, and thanks for being such a huge and enduring influence on me and my life. I guess that’s the true test of a great teacher, isn’t it?
cc: Dan McGinty
Director of Alumni Relations
University of Wisconsin – River Falls (with copy of the book for the University Archives)