Sunday, December 3, 2017

Gene Dillard: A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Ten December 3, 2017

For Gene Dillard

I loved him for his open heart, his brash speech,
and his outrageous behavior. He came into a diary
course in the main Durham Library, making sure
we all knew he was there, and asked was this the
class about keeping a journal. “Yes,” I said, and
he settled in. Later he took poetry classes, after
making sure it wasn’t a sissy thing to write
poetry. Some women were offended by his
unpredictable commentary. I never was.
Gradually he quieted, let us know his deep
feelings. He stuck with the poetry, let us meet
in his home, where we read Whitman, Dickinson,
and Charles Eaton. He never did my assignments,
but his poetry flourished. On several occasions
he fixed my car, which broke down before
or after a class. Once he lay under it, and
when I handed him the wrong tool, he fussed,
but he fixed the radiator hose. Another
 time he kept me at his house overnight,
then took me to buy a starter the next
morning. He liked to call me and ask if I
were decent. He made me laugh. Over the
years he has sometimes changed his voice
and asked, “Is this Judy Hogan, the famous
writer?” He joined the Peace Corps in 2002,
and went to Honduras, fixed water systems.
He could fix most things, and his regular
work was fixing heating and air conditioning
problems in university labs and businesses.
He was self-taught, but read widely in
philosophy and admired outdoor sculptors
who were whimsical. He’d drive a thousand
miles to see outside art that defied the
categories. In 2005 I invited him to speak
to my reading classes at the college, and he
told them how hard he studied for his license,
and had to take the exam three times before
he passed and could go independent. Then
there were our Charles Eaton years. Charles
was, I thought, the best living American poet.
I reviewed all his books and was invited to
visit him three or four times a year. Charles
didn’t cope well with his aging, and I heard
his laments. Gene began visiting him,
giving him rides, helping with household crises.
When a relative tried to declare Charles mentally
incompetent, and they took him to UNC’s
psych ward, Gene went to bring him home.
Charles was waiting in a wheelchair while
some doctors conferred nearby. Gene got
tried of waiting, grabbed the wheelchair
handles and hustled him out of the ward
and onto the elevator. An aide saw them
and went in pursuit, but Gene had
Charles in is truck by the time the aide
caught up, breathless. Charles was
shocked into laughter, but though Gene
offered to cruise Franklin Street, Charles
insisted he wanted to go home and back
to Pat, his wife. After Charles died,
Gene looked after Pat. I suspected she
was in love with Gene. Sometimes when
Gene calls, he says, “This is Charles Eaton.”
When I had to have my cataract surgery,
I told him I was worried. My mother had
lost her eyesight after a bungled surgery.
He called as soon as I was back home
and asked, “Is this one-eyed Hogan?”
I laughed.

 His full genius came to flower
when he began turning his home into
a work of art. He did some yard ornaments;
then began making mosaics of the walls
of his garage, then a wall in his garden
using bottles. Eventually, all the walls
of his house were mosaicked; then the
inside, even chairs and tables.

 Now he
lives inside his art. He reminds me of
Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth.
Gulley would paint murals wherever
he could find a good big space, even if
that wall was destined for demolition.
People stop by Gene’s house regularly,
and he gets coverage on TV and in the
local papers. Gene is moving out
now into the community with his
mosaic projects. There is so much to
see and love where Gene has been
turning what he sees in his mind’s eye
into stunning works of art.

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