Gary’s Funeral

On Saturday afternoon, Don Perrin and I drove up to Lake Geneva for Gary Gygax’s funeral. The visitation had started at 11 AM, but we left after I got back from Marty’s last indoor soccer game. The funeral wasn’t scheduled until 2 PM, and we got there well before 1:30 PM, so we had time to spare.

It was a closed-casket funeral, so I didn’t get to see Gary one last time. The family had assembled several boards worth of photos, though, which showed Gary throughout his life, and a handsome painted portrait of him in his later years stood on an easel next to the casket. There was also a banner with the names of hundreds if not thousands of well-wishers sent from ENWorld, plus over a dozen large flower arrangements.

I recognized many of his family members, especially his sons from his first marriage (to Mary), Ernie and Luke. I also saw his daughters Elise, Heidi, and Cindy and spotted Alex, his son from his second marriage (to Gail). It had been years since I’d seen any of them, but Luke and Gail recognized me immediately, and I spent a few minutes with Gail, chatting about Gary. She seemed well, although as she said, the last week had been a whirlwind of funeral arrangements and media requests. She suspected it would hit her hard the next week, when she could sit down and finally absorb it all.

Gail told me she knew that Gary knew how much people appreciated him and his work. In the early years, he’d often shrug such things off, but as he got older he understood it more. To him, the most important things were using games to have fun and to build community, and he’d clearly succeeded at that.

Lots of the old crew from TSR showed up, including my Alliterate pals Doug (and Chris) Niles, Steve Sullivan (and his wife Kiff), and Lester Smith. I also saw Frank Mentzer, Skip Williams, Jim Lowder, Jim Ward, Jamie and Renae Chambers, Cam Banks, James Mishler, Sue and Monte Cook, Duke Seifried, Tom Wham, Harold Johnson, Stephen and David Chenault, David Kenzer, Jolly Blackburn, Brian Jelke, Bill Fawcett, Jody Lynn Nye, David Wise, and many others.

The room was packed. As Don said on the drive up, “This is gaming’s first state funeral,” and it felt a bit like that. The funeral was open to the public, and word had it that some fans had flown in from as far away as California. As Monte commented on his site, it seemed like it should have been bigger, but it’s hard for people to travel cross-country on such short notice. I suspect we’ll have a memorial event at Gen Con this summer that will pack a ballroom. As it was, I didn’t see many if any empty seats in the funeral home.

The funeral was as wonderful as such a sad occasion can be. I sat between Don and Duke, a few rows back, just behind the family, and listened to every word.

The reverend started out with Psalm 23, and could not help but thinking how Gary would have turned it into an adventure, particularly when we got to the part about “my rod and my staff.”

After the readings, four men got up to talk a bit about Gary. Harold Johnson spoke first. He reminisced about what a great friend Gary had been to him over the years, and he nearly broke down toward the end.

Jim Ward got up next and gave Harold a hard time for forgetting to introduce him as he went crying all the way back to his seat. It was a good-natured ribbing from someone who loved Gary as much as anyone else. Jim told about how he’d met Gary. The two of them had been in a bookstore in Lake Geneva, and they each ended up picking up the same seven historical books. Laughing about the coincidence, Gary told Jim about the then-new D&D, and Jim said, “I have to play this.”

Later, after a game of D&D on Gary’s back porch, Jim said, “There should be a science-fiction version of this.” Gary, as generous as ever, said, “Well, why don’t you write it, Jim?” And that’s how Metamorphosis Alpha came to be.

Next, Stephen Chenault spoke about how blessed he felt to have known Gary and published his work over the past few years. He mentioned how he’d been in shock after the new and hadn’t been ready to respond to the flood of calls from the media. Then a reporter from a prominent news organization asked about Gary, “Is it true he lived in a dungeon?” That shook Stephen, and he knew he had to start talking to help set the record straight.

Last of all, Luke Gygax got up and spoke for the family. He’s a captain in the US Army Reserves, and he wore his dress uniform for the occasion. He said he knew Gary was many things to many people, but he could only speak of him as he knew him: his best friend, his role model, and—most of all—his dad.

Luke, who clearly inherited Gary’s love for stories and talent for spinning them, told a number of tales from his life with his father. He made the rest of us cry, then laugh, then cry again.

He mentioned how he and his older siblings would beg for bedtime stories. And how a day home sick would turn into almost a week when Gary, who worked at home, would break out a huge wargame to keep them entertained while Luke recovered—at least until Gail caught on and sent the now-healthy Luke back to school.

At the end, Luke turned to the coffin and said, “I love you, Dad, and I salute you,” then snapped off a sharp salute before returning to his seat.

No one’s eyes stayed dry through that.

In his homily later, the reverend quoted from two men who’d written about how Gary had affected their lives: Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman. You can read Wil’s story on his site, but Neil’s concerned how he could thank Gary for his career because Neil gave up being an impoverished, young journalist after being asked to write a high-paying cover story about how D&D corrupted youths.

After the funeral, Don and grabbed a cup of coffee with his friend Craig, then headed over to the American Legion Hall for the wake. This is the same place where I’d gone to my first convention (a Winter Fantasy) and first met Gary 26 years ago—the same place that had been part of four early Gen Cons—and I hadn’t been back since. Despite the somber occasion, I couldn’t stop grinning from the way the déjà vu sent my head spinning.

The main room had several tables set up for gaming, and a projector played pictures from Gary’s life on one wall. In the front room, a bar served beer and pop, while Elise and Ernie and other family members hung out in the kitchen, from which the girls had served countless hot dogs during conventions past. I pointed out the spot in which I’d played my first convention game ever, a session of Boot Hill with Steve Winter, who’s now one of my fellow Alliterates.

At that Winter Fantasy, my mother had driven my friends and I up for the day then gone shopping in Lake Geneva. When she came to pick us up, she waited patiently for our last games to wind up. As she did, she spoke to one of the men in charge of the convention and—having been to several regular conventions herself—pointed out a number of ways in which this small gathering of gamers could be improved. I found her at the end of this conversation and was shocked to see that she’d been talking with Gary himself.

I sat next to Duke for a bit, and he showed me dozens of clippings of his fantastic miniatures dioramas. At 80 years old, he’s as vibrant as ever. He plays in a couple of bands, one of which my old band teacher from high school leads. The other is, of course, the Duke Seifried Trio, which plays at the Speakeasy in Janesville, among other venues.

Duke was the first executive vice president of TSR, and he helped bring polyhedral dice and miniatures into the fantasy gaming hobby. When I was 15 years old, I interviewed for a self-published magazine I ran, and the subject was the private miniatures gaming weekends he would run at his house as team-building exercises for executives. He claimed that his depiction of Helm’s Deep was the most accurate ever, as he’d visited with Professor Tolkien himself and made sketches with him before designing it.

I’m told that—last week, before Gary died—Duke Seifried stumbled across a one-of-a-kind metal miniature he’d made for Gary many years before. He’d set it aside, intending to give it back to Gary. Instead, it wound up in the pocket of Gary’s suit, and he was buried with it.

Frank Mentzer got up and spoke soon after the event began. He talked about meeting Gary and working as his right-hand creative man for so many years, which helped him learn how to write in Gary’s unique style, which they called “High Gygaxian,” or “Higax” for short.

I understand the gaming went on until the management kicked everyone out at 9 PM, although I’m sure it could have kept going all night. I knew I had to get back to my family before too long, so I didn’t join in a game and stuck to catching up with friends and offering condolences instead. (Don and I left a little before 6 PM.) Still, I saw lots of them being played, with everyone laughing and enjoying themselves, despite the reason that had brought them together.

More than one person referred to it as Gary Con 1. I don’t know if it will ever be repeated, but the once was fantastic enough. My favorite of all the games I saw being played was an old-school D&D session of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the first published D&D adventure in which I ever played. The Dungeon Master had all the original material in front of him, and something like eight players hanging on his every word as he led them into the

I think Gary would have loved that.

I find myself missing Gary, which is ironic, as I didn’t miss him much when he was alive. I was happy to chit-chat with him when our paths crossed, but I never made it a point to seek him out. Still, I always smiled when I’d read his notes on an e-mail list we were on, and it comforted me to know that he was out there still writing and playing games, even if I wasn’t involved.

He was the Stan Lee, the Orson Welles ,of gaming. He didn’t invent the concept of games, of course, but he (and his co-designer Dave Arneson) reinvented them in novel ways that caught fire in the hearts and minds of people around the globe. Without him, the world would be a lot duller, and I would have probably wound up punching a clock somewhere as a systems analyst.

So, here’s to the man who splashed color across the world, who spiced our dreams with his special fantasy melange, and who gave us good reasons to gather with friends, play games, and make stories of our own.

Here’s to you, Gary. I salute you too.