Sunday, September 30, 2012

Teachers, Actors, Time

Late one sunny August afternoon as I drove across campus, watching returning students wave to old friends, it was hard not to recall another August when I was one of them. 1969. I’d driven here from New York to resume my education, after two years working with kids in Harlem and driving a cab.

That first semester I took film-making classes with Orville "Bud" Wanzer, a New York City cop’s son shooting films and photographs in the desert.

I took a poetry workshop with Keith Wilson, a bearded fellow who mixed his New Mexico roots, his Korean War service, and a bit of shamanism into a unique poetic brew.

I also took a fiction-writing workshop with a charismatic young fellow from Miami. He held the class in an open area on the second floor of Corbett Center, where there were a couple of couches, a few chairs, and a decent carpet to sit on. When old Herschel Zohn staged War and Peace on campus, this young writing instructor played Andrei. Very effectively, as I recall.

He was also an athlete. Immediately we started playing tennis twice a week. He had a devastating left-handed spin serve. My memory may exaggerate this, but it feels as if he won every set at love.

We also played in a Sunday touch football game that was competitive enough that a couple of Aggie wide-receivers joined us now and then; and our softball team won campus championships. Slow-pitch. One year we signed up for the fast-pitch league too. We had no fast-pitch pitcher. So we played with our regular guy lobbing up slow ones, while we hit against guys throwing hard. Even so, we went deep into the playoffs. And had a lot of fun.

Our youthful selves grow stronger and more graceful with the years, as x-rays of our knees start looking like junkyards littered with rusted parts of unknown origin.

In 1972, I went to the New York opening of "When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" by my old fiction instructor, Mark Medoff.

Last weekend at the Community Theatre, we saw "When you Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" Directed by the playwright. Well-acted, and as engaging as it was forty years ago – except that this time, before the play started, they showed slides from the late 1960's and early 1970's. Some members of the audience (and cast) hadn’t been born yet. At one point a character says, sarcastically, that it might take $50 to fill up a Cadillac with gas, whereas today we all wish we could fill the tank for so little.

So now the play is also a piece of the past.

Past and present mingle more and more these days.

Before supper and the play we visit Bud Wanzer, now 81. His mind’s sharp, but he can’t move around too well. (He retired in 1984, moved up to our land on the river, built a solar-powered home, and lived alone there until a few months ago, making beautiful stained-glass pieces enjoyed mostly by his five dogs.) When I stop at Milagro’s to buy a brownie for Bud, the owner responds with a special smile when I tell him whom it’s for. He took two memorable film-making classes with Bud just before he went to ‘Nam.

We have supper with Heloise Wilson (Keith’s widow) and Grant and Tenya Price, who arrived in Las Cruces the same month I did, and immediately became my close friends. Grant, who also played in those Sunday touch football games, is wearing a very faded T-shirt commemorating the opening of the play – forty years ago, when he and David Apodaca built the set. (Another of the Sunday football players was Bill Diven, whose younger brother Bob designed the excellent set for the present production.)

I tell Heloise that twice recently, when a man learned in conversation that I knew Keith and Heloise, he grew emotional telling me how much Keith had helped and inspired him. I’ve seen similar glows on the faces of folks telling me about poetry workshops they took with Joe Somoza, ten or twenty years ago.

I marvel at the many lives these teachers and artists have affected over the years, sometimes deeply. Keith has left us. So has John Hadsell, who helped start the community theater, helped start Mark on his career, and worked with Bud to initiate and run for decades the Campus Film Society.

It’s neat to see Medoff still working creatively and mentoring other writers and actors – and that students like those I saw that day in August will study in a building named for Mark and Stephanie.

More compelling is the legacy that Mark and the others have left living in the heads and hearts of men and women who write or act better, or live better, or feel better, because of them.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 30 September. ]


  1. My name is Darrell Leland and I was one of Buddy Wanzer's students in the mid 80s. He built an animation stand for me literally out of plywood, bailing ire, and a 1950s Maurer 16mm film camera. I'd love to get back in touch with him if he's still around.

    1. I've emailed you. Bud's 86, alert but deaf and not very mobile, and would probably love to see you if you're here in town or passing through. (Deafness prevents phone calls mostly; and his use of email is pretty limited.

  2. You can contact me at

  3. DL's comment suggests an update regarding all three men I mention in the column, for the benefit of former students/friends/etc.: Orville Wanzer ("Bud" Wanzer), Keith Wilson, and Mark Medoff. Bud retired and lived 24 years as sort of a hermit on our land up near Derry, published a fantasy novel, and got very good at stained-glass; Keith died in probably 2010, there's a Collected Poems volume available through his wife, Heloise, and she and two of their four kids still live in Las Cruces; and Mark is still here, still doing plays and films, immersed both in a wonderful family life and theater and film. No more basketball, though.