My brother, Dale Rathke, was many things to many people.
The “just the facts, ma’am” version found him born 64 years ago in Rangely, Colorado on the western slope, where he spent his first 5 years living in an oil company camp actually 5 miles from Rangely itself and about 15 miles from the Utah border in the upper northwestern corner of Rio Blanco County. The family followed the oil wells from there to Kentucky and then to New Orleans where our parents told both of us that they were trading our snow sleds for raincoats and that we could have another dog once we moved to a ranch. We believed everything they told us for many years and kept asking when we were moving to that ranch.
He skipped 2nd grade and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School as the valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar in 1967. He was an Eagle Scout. He graduated from Yale University in 1971. He spent a year teaching in New Orleans public schools while he waited to see if his low draft number would call him to Vietnam, then he went to Princeton University gaining his PhD in English Literature in 1974 specializing in early Elizabethan period.
He was fluent in French and could follow Italian and read Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. He was a math wizard testing off the charts. He ended up living mainly in New York City off and on for 3 years until 1978 when he began working in various capacities, mainly handling the finances for the ACORN family of organizations for 30 years until 2008, and then doing so for the Chief Organizer Fund and related corporations for another 6 years until his death.
These are the things we know for sure.
Going through his library over the last month reveals even more diverse interests. Cookbooks of all descriptions, after he became a gourmet cook at Princeton. Proust in the original French. Scores of books on opera, art collections, poetry, philosophy, and of course literature. There was Burke’s Peerage and full editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, but there were also books specializing in southern and British humor, biographies of society folk and scores of volumes of “who’s who” of this and that. There was a book on the best cut men in boxing and biographies of Blake and Stephen Crane and Irving Berlin. I got a note from a comrade remembering a lunchtime lecture Dale once gave him on “protecting the life of the mind.” You get the picture. Dale was always the smartest guy in the room, though he did all of us the favor of being reserved and quiet about it until provoked.
When asked about the utility of his education and erudition, Dale was one of the last, great proponents of knowledge for the pure sake of knowledge, and would argue he was uninterested in its application in the so-called real world. Though he wouldn’t hesitate later to take computer programming classes at Delgado and teach himself double-entry bookkeeping, accounting, and architecture, as well as reading the law when we needed it. The manager of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse would joke that “Dale was the internet.” Definitely he was dangerous using that tool.
Not surprisingly we have gotten notes from people remembering Dale taking them to museums and explaining why something was art or making them go to the opera with him because they had never been or leading them on the “grand tour” of museums in Europe during his New York interregnum.
But on the other hand, my own memories are just as vivid outside of the cultured and social byways he often traveled as an adult that might surprise many of his other friends.
- As boys we spent thousands of hours walking through the arroyos and dry wash gullys in Colorado with a BB gun, some crackers, and a canteen daily for a half-dozen summers when our father’s job took us all through every Chevron operation in a half-dozen western states.
- While living in New Orleans one of our favorite pastimes was playing “spectacular catch” in the front yard on Burbank Street whether in football or baseball season.
- I always felt responsible for a bike accident that broke his front tooth because we were riding too close together while talking as we rode home from elementary school.
- Our first jobs were mowing yards for people for $2 bucks a lawn in the summer. Dale made a quarter for sweeping and 50 cents when we made another buck edging. I bought a pirogue and we would take it out to Bayou St. John and turn it over just to be able to swim around and put it right again. We would slap alligator gars with the paddles and watch them bubble up alongside the boat.
- Dale didn’t drive a stick shift, but in 1978 after ACORN’s first convention in Memphis, I was so exhausted I put him behind the wheel on a Volvo P1800 and he drove from Memphis to almost Louisiana after I put the car in gear as he worked the clutch. He was always game!
At ACORN Year End meetings there was a popular feature of the meeting called “you should have been there when…” Well, you all should have been there when…
- We took ACORN’s campaign to Tulsa in 1980 to try to win delegates as we pushed for greater participation of lower income families in the political process. We were all on the doors before the Oklahoma caucus and Dale was taking doorknocking shifts on the streets as well and was assigned to a section of Greenwood, a large low income African-American area. We were getting commitments for people to attend the caucus. Dale hit one door and two older black men were busy and said they would be glad to listen to him but he had to talk with them while they were working and help out. They were killing chickens and handed him several by the necks for him to hold while he talked. He got the commitments, and I will always be able to picture him with a chicken in each hand.
- A colleague from the early 1980s shared this story with us the other day. The first office that national ACORN had in New Orleans, Dale found and built for us at 628 Baronne Street in the CBD. The building was sold and we were preparing to move to the next location on Tchoupitoulas. The new owners were already breaking through the walls on the upper stories. Rats, some as large as cats, were thick as thieves in the warehouse district and would sometimes come skittering through even during the middle of the afternoons, but were in full strength at nights and Dale would regularly be the last person out of the office long after midnight. Our comrade was running the canvass program and would check in with Dale at 10pm before leaving for the night. He describes the scene:
“Dale’s fortress against these rodents as he toiled away at his computer screen through the night was a collection of desks he’d assembled to surround his own desk. If one of them appeared to be on the verge of penetrating this fortress, he’d toss one of the boat shoes he always wore at the invader. I witnessed this on more than one occasion while he and I chatted about the day. I found it somewhat unnerving, but we’d laugh about it”
Dale was an original. He was a contradiction and a conundrum.
He made mistakes that hurt him and hurt our work, but no one could question as one comrade said recently his dedication to “our life’s work” or as another commented “his commitment to social justice” and to building our organizations with his 36 years of labor. He worked tirelessly over endless days and hours toiling on the books and finances when there was almost always more month than there was money.
He was enigmatic and inscrutable.
He was multi-faceted, presenting so many different sides of himself and personas to different people.
He broke rules and lived almost as an outlaw, cleaning out his apartment I found scores of parking tickets, and can assure you that he’s not welcome in Jefferson Parish, but at the same time he insisted on form, order, dignity, and manners, while avoiding conflict of any kind. He hated unpleasantness. He believed in being amusing. He lived by his wits with charm and guile.
He was intensely private. He was solicitous of his friends. He loved his various West Highland terriers. He doted on his niece, Dine’, and nephew, Chaco, and was a sucker for any request they made of him. Beth and I often said that our children were raised by wolves, but in reality it was a small village where my mother, my father, and their uncle were all vital in their lives in a way that was unknown to Dale and me given our distance from any of our own relatives in California and Mississippi. We had each other and for the most part we made that work for us all of our lives.
A friend and comrade reminded me a year or so ago that he had asked me something about Dale perhaps 15 years ago, and I had responded that I “would let him know once I got to know him better.” Now with Dale’s passing and going through his books, his apartment, my parents’ house, and even his meticulously organized computer with its tiers of orderly files and financial records kept just so, “almost to the end,” I think I will spend the rest of my days, as many of his family and friends will, in trying to both know him better and at the same time keeping him alive in our memories and missing him on the rest of the journey.
At the back of the sanctuary we have brought a diverse selection from Dale’s library. Please help yourself to one of these books as a memento of your relationship with Dale. There are also directions to the repast. All here are invited.
Thank you all for sharing our love for Dale today.