John Igo

Award Winning Author

 

   "I never dreamed I’d be writing John Igo’s obituary, but that’s what I wound up doing for Today’s Catholic, since there was no published obituary or notice of funeral services, just articles by news staff with quotes from those who knew him. I had known John for so long (and in so many ways) my biggest problem was whittling it down to a one-page story with photos. I first met him in 1971 through his and my involvement with the First Repertory Company of San Antonio at the old Quonset hut theatre on Chichester. Then I discovered my maternal grandmother, Ida Keller Vorpahl (who was still living in S.A. at the time) had known his family from way back. She was born in 1892. Wish now I’d written things down and asked for more details. There was mention of how entertaining it had been, “long ago,” to spend Sunday afternoons at his family’s home. How long ago or if the family were Wollers or Igos, the house was in Southtown or Helotes, or what generation of family this was, I do not know. In recent times, it has occurred to me it may not have been the musical gathering of friends playing instruments and singing I’d envisioned at the time and, more likely, the conversation was the entertainment, if his family was anything like John. My mother, Mildred Vorpahl Baass, who grew up here, also knew about John long before running into him at various poetry conventions and meetings, which started after I’d left home. Her sister (my Aunt Evelyn Vorpahl Slimp) also knew about him. She’d been a teacher in S.A. (Somerset?) in her youth and, while I don’t believe she taught John, she knew of him as a student and young prodigy. Perhaps she’d been a UIL judge. There was something about an extraordinary performance or submission in some scholarly competition, but whether it was declamation, drama, poetry or writing, I do not know. It could have been any of them. It could have been all of them. My life is threaded with specific memories of John over the years. He was like a shiny (and sharp!) needle that popped up in the fabric of my life at various intervals, stitching the diverse pieces together. He was certainly a constant presence throughout my years in local theatre in the 1970s. At First Rep, as 1971 turned into 1972, I was in charge of handling submissions for First Rep’s international playwriting contest and channeling scripts through the appointed readers, one of whom was John. I recall handing him a stack of plays through the box office window at First Rep’s HemisFair Plaza theatre. (No complaints of: “You just gave me 20 to read last week!” from him!) After First Rep disbanded the resident company in spring of 1973, the first show I tried out for and was cast in was Wayne Elkins’ “Romeo & Juliet” for SALT’s Off-Stage at the San Pedro Playhouse. I have a distinct memory of where Wayne, John and I were standing, chatting on the stage at a rehearsal one night. We are downstage right, Wayne to my left and John on my right. I am facing upstage. (John, of course, advised on text for the production.) I left acting behind to become a fulltime mom at the end of 1978, but my mother, who lived in Victoria, would mention seeing him at Poetry Society events in San Antonio. “We sat next to John Igo at the banquet Saturday. He mentioned you.” I remember the time they were both in a contest whose prize was publication of a book of one’s poems. She was miffed he won, but we all stayed friends. The years went by, and I would hear of John or see his name in the papers, but never ran into him. We faithfully exchanged Christmas cards since First Rep days though and, when I finally caved in to typing a Xeroxed Christmas newsletter (somewhere in the 1980s, I think), I would slip one into my card to him. He would send a holiday postcard in return, until arthritis began causing him problems. Even when his stopped, I kept sending mine.  

My two daughters attended grade school at Locke Hill Elementary in northwest San Antonio, with both assigned to the Gifted & Talented classes. One day, entering the school to help carry some project home, I was surprised to find John in the lobby. Turned out he was there to meet with another G&T student (the daughter of my friend Peggy Durack), who was compiling a history of Locke Hill Elementary as a project. John had attended the old Lock Hill School (no “e” back then) and had abundant material on it that he was happy to share. When I moved into my present house in 1994, following a divorce, I threw a thank-you party for friends who’d helped me with the move and with other difficulties at that time and decided to call up John and invite him. He wasn’t able to make it, but I still remember sitting on the edge of my bed, using the bed stand phone, as he regaled me with all the theatre “news” I had missed out on during my full-time mommy days, including the tale of a mutual theatre friend whose wife was so incensed at his leaving her for another woman, she had pitched his prized bonsai trees out the door after him. If the man’s former mother-in-law (also a mutual theatre friend) was coming to my party, John confided sagely, I probably should not expect the errant horticulturist/actor to attend. (She did. He did not.) That now long ago phone chat with John still crosses my mind, from time to time, when I sit by the bed stand at night, adjusting my alarm clocks. Fast forward a bit and it’s early 2004. A couple of months before, theatre friend Maggie Hardy had called to request I write a song for a show she was directing for the Extended Run Players at UIW, “Remembering When.” I really wasn’t writing songs anymore, I told her, but Maggie was hard to say “no” to, so I came up with one, plus gave her another, and subsequently attended every rehearsal just for the thrill of hearing my songs sung. The night of final dress rehearsal was also tech night, so when one of the actors couldn’t make it, I volunteered to stand in for him. I hadn’t set foot onstage as an actress in 26 years but, hey, this was basically reader’s theatre and all I had to do was read four true tales from days gone by that I was pretty familiar with after attending all those rehearsals. The last two happened to be memories written by John Igo. (I recognized one of them when I read his 2014 book, FOLKTALES FROM THE HELOTES SETTLEMENT – page 128, “July 4, 1976.”) Too late I learned there was a guest audience that night AND nobody had a script of the absent actor’s two personal narratives (humorous tales of his WW II Marine days), but I adlibbed the missing stories as best I could, basking in the audience’s hearty laughter. Doing John’s two stories was icing on the cake then, especially his “July 4, 1976” – that old feeling of holding a hushed audience spellbound as you channel written words into spoken ones that emotionally connect writer/character with audience, through you. That weekend, John attended a performance and I sat beside him as his stories were told and my songs were sung. When the show ended, he needed my hand to help him up, and I realized this seemingly ageless man was growing old. His mind never did.

The following year, in 2005, I was assigned to write a story for the newspaper I work for, Today's Catholic, on the 40th anniversary of San Antonio College’s Catholic Student Center and was told John Igo was one of the people to interview, as he’d been involved with it from the beginning. He agreed to a phone interview and I was enthralled with the stories he shared, recording everything over the speakerphone with the little mini-cassette recorder I used back then. I don’t know how many hours we talked. The time just flew! He told me there was a lot of history in what he’d shared with me and I should save the tapes for posterity. I still have them. Fortunately, my editor let me expand the story into a two-part series, for I still had others to interview and I had so much fascinating information from John, of which I could only use a fraction for the assignment. I did squeeze in one of his “you can’t use this for the story, but let me tell you about….” mini-tales as a sidebar on a former occupant of the old mansion that became SAC’s Catholic Student Center. That fall, the Newman Club at SAC presented plaques honoring persons for special service and I was unexpectedly one of them, along with John. Being considered on an equivalent level with him (which I really wasn’t) was an honor in itself. Can’t say I “shared the stage” with him though. The presentations were made in an on-campus building and John had sent word the steps there were too difficult for him to navigate and he’d meet up with everyone at the reception at the center afterwards. (That’s where I got the photo of him in his ice cream cone tie!) Though he had stopped sending Christmas postcards at some point, one Christmas when I was working at a tourist magazine in the early 2000s, I received in the mail from him (with no accompanying explanation) a little Xeroxed booklet on “Los Pastores” that he’d written for the Conservation Society. (I’d been writing stories about historic places and events for the magazine, so he was evidently keeping up with my newsletters.) A couple of years ago, I ended my annual chronicle of the year with a quote from “Desiderata,” attributing it, according to the magazine I’d recently seen, to “anonymous.” I promptly received by mail from John a folded envelope with his new address at a retirement facility and the painfully scrawled words on it that he had moved and that “Desiderata” was written by Max Ehrmann. (I sent out a correction in my newsletter the following Christmas.) I occasionally ran into him or spoke with him on the phone, as the years flew by. I attended the opening of the John Igo Branch Library (what a thrill to see his pride in it!) and performances of two of his plays at UIW. In spring of last year, my old friend Peggy Durack (mother of the young Locke Hill historian) offered me the chance to be in a reader’s theatre presentation of one of those plays, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” at his namesake library, but it was on a weekday and I had a “full plate” at work, so deferred the offer to another First Rep alumna, Linda Ford, who also knew John. I later learned his birthday was celebrated at the event. Wish I’d been there.

I spoke with John by phone several times last year, to let him know about plans for the 2015 First Rep Reunion that September, which we hoped he’d attend. (He’d been at the one in 1992, surprising us with a batch of “First Rep” buttons he’d made for us to wear, and sending me photos I was in afterwards.) Though he shunned e-mail, he proudly informed me a friend had set up a website for him, and he could be contacted through that, so let people know. I did. When he wasn’t able to make the reunion after all, he sent us the registration fee anyway because he wanted to support it. Afterwards, I personally delivered his FRC directory/reflections book and filled him in on the latest with the First Rep clan. When I started to apologize for errors in the directory I hadn’t caught in time (remembering how in my early years at the paper, he’d call to report any mistakes), he said, with total sincerity, “It doesn’t matter.” All that was important to him was receiving the information on old friends it contained. I had gone straight from work, not intending to stay long as had work in the morning and was already dead tired, but couldn’t tear myself away, it was so enjoyable talking with him. It was 9:30 p.m. when I finally left. I visited with him again on New Year’s Eve to bring him one of the CDs of old First Rep photos we’d made for the reunion and show him my photos from those three giddy days of touching base with theatre compadres from our younger years. He seemed a little more tired than the previous visit. We’d had trouble setting a time and date. I was on Christmas vacation, but he seemed to have a very full schedule, though mentioned some of it was doctor appointments. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d see him. So the obituary I wrote for John in the Sept. 2 Today’s Catholic had a lot of ground to cover. It was drawn from biographical information in his books, from the concise life summary he’d sent in for the First Rep “reunion book,” from the eulogy and testimonials at the celebration of his life on Aug. 17 and the brief obit in the program there, as well as from the transcript of my Today’s Catholic interview with him and things he’d told me during my recent visits. I couldn’t get everything in (nobody could), but did the best I could, and I hope he’d approve. ~ Carol Baass Sowa, Friend of John Igo, Today's Catholic, Staff Writer