Robert Waller — the measure of a life

Robert Waller died the other day. Some of you may not know him by name. He was the one-time dean of the business school at the University of Northern Iowa who, by the way, also wrote The Bridges of Madison County. You remember, the book on the New York Times bestseller list for several years and then made into a movie starring Merle Streep and Clint Eastwood. Not a bad claim to fame. An Iowa boy who hit the big time. Good for him.

Sadly, or ironically, or predictably (given your bent), Waller became famous and ended up moving to Texas, divorcing his wife of almost 36 years, and marrying a much younger ranch employee named Linda Bow. I know this because I read about it in a 1997 Texas Monthly story titled Burning Bridges. And I read it again in a 1997 People magazine article by a different journalist also titled Burning Bridges. Neither story overly friendly to Waller.

People magazine claimed that Georgia, his then wife, confronted Waller about his affair with Linda Bow while they were all together on vacation in India.

“Devastated, Georgia flew home and filed for divorce,” according to Texas Monthly.

And, of course, their only daughter was dragged into the mess, the Texas Monthly claims.

“He told me in anger that I was taking my mother’s side because I was in it for the money. My mother is a wonderful, saintly person. The fact is, I’m a female, and I too feel betrayed.”

Not to be outdone, People magazine told of the party for 45 people thrown by Georgia in celebration of the final divorce, where one guest reportedly stated: “It is a pyrrhic victory, says a friend: ‘Now the house has ghosts.’”


And Waller’s response to all this?

“Waller says that there are ‘all sorts of rumors about me,’ and that ’88 percent’ of what has been written is wrong.” So says the Sacramento Bee in 2005. 


How do we take the measure of a man’s life? Is there a truth to be found? Are we left with President Trump and his “alternative facts”? Does the outrageous and titillating always triumph? Is everything relative even when the dirt hits flat against the lid of the coffin?

I don’t think so. There is truth. The sun does rise and the sun does fall. If you hit me, I will hurt. Cinnamon rolls are a glimpse of heaven.

It’s just that people are not the best source of truth.

I once had a murder case with an eyewitness. Yup, a person who saw the bad guy actually shoot the victim. A slam dunk case, most would say.

Of course, I lost.

As I moaned and groaned and felt horrible for the victim’s family, I remembered what an old prosecutor told me many years before when we were doing a burglary case out of Newton.

“Joe, I’d rather have one fingerprint at a crime scene than a dozen priests who are eyewitnesses.”

Why is this? Well, we are all fallible it seems. We see what we want to see. We blink and fill in missing pieces. We hear things and develop pictures in our brain that are totally made up. Our past impacts our interpretation of the present. Darkness, trees, TV noises, itches, dirty glasses, and “Get down tonight” humming in our head gives each of us our own picture of reality. Or, is it clearer to say, our own picture of fantasy? Listen, you pay your money and make your choice.

But don’t get me wrong, there is truth. There is a measurable fingerprint.

Robert Waller wrote some great stuff. He wrote of sadness and joy and love and romance. He wrote about perfecting a jump shot and disappointing his father. He wrote of his only child leaving for college and his utter sadness in her empty room. He wrote of his love for his first wife and his pride in her independence. He wrote of the heart-wrenching death of his cat. He wrote about magic. And he wrote about Iowa.

He loved Iowa so much that he wanted his ashes scattered at the merging of the Winnebago and the Shell Rock rivers below Rockford, Iowa.

“I try to sort out the feelings. I am alive, breathing, healthy. Yet one day I will float out over these waters.”

That was written back in 1987 in his book Just Beyond the Firelight, before all the fame and glory and infamy. And here we are, 30 years later.

“Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye.”

Robert Waller wrote that line.

That is a truth.

May he rest in peace.



4 thoughts on “Robert Waller — the measure of a life

  1. Thank you. I was reading Robert Waller before he became “famous” with Bridges. Really enjoyed his Just Beyond the Firelight. Just as I enjoy your writings.

  2. Oh Joe! So much I could say about this piece, how we all see ‘reality’ through the filters of our own minds. But what I’ll say instead is my personal tribute to Robert Waller. He was a wonderful writer! I used to eagerly open the Sunday Des Moines Register of old (you know..back in the days when it was a real newspaper, not a USA Today clone.) Would there be a op-ed piece from Robert Waller? So delighted when there was and I could sink into his world. Yes, he went to the ‘dark side’ and wrote romantic novels for money. But you could still find pearls of beauty in them. (and what the hell is wrong with romance?) “Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye.” Wish I had written that! Life is messy; love is messy. All of us make choices. My opinion: lives should not be judged on their messiness, but rather on their rich complexity and whether they add beauty to the world. RIP, Robert Waller.

  3. Bravo! You are so right – it’s complicated. People are complicated. We have the ability to do brilliant things and also do amazingly petty and mean things. I’m so glad you included the lovely quotes.

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