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Jack Wennerstrom

Jack Alan Wennerstrom

Monday, June 7th, 1948 - Monday, December 30th, 2019
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Obituary

A Memorial Tribute to Jack Alan Wennerstrom

Monday June 7, 1948-Monday December 30, 2019

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“When alone I feel more alert and somehow more resourceful. Stimuli strike in bunches, are digested more completely, and used to build fresh thought, new wonder. I say nothing foolish for there is no one there to listen. At such times ‘alone,’ in fact, is not quite what I am. I am companioned by all my senses, which fan out and search with me as though my private band of woodsmen, fanatically devoted. There is no need to plan a rendezvous, to debate which routes are best, or to set a time for lunch. They share my wants and opinions. When it is over we will all meet back at the house or car, simultaneously, with infallible precision.”

—Jack Wennerstrom, “Soldiers Delight Journal”

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In Swedish, “vän till strömmen” means “friend of the stream.” On December 30, 2019, the streams, the fringed gentians, the serpentine barrens, and the upper Potomac lost a true friend and eloquent advocate with the unexpected death of Jack Alan Wennerstrom. In a Baltimore hospital ICU, where family and friends had come to be there for him and for me, he returned to star-dust at the age of 71. He was my beloved husband for 42 years. In my family, he was the brother-in-law/uncle admired for his writing and known for his nature hikes. This Scandinavia-rooted author, naturalist, poet, philosopher, and teacher thoroughly and truthfully examined his own existence—and thus mine as well. With insight, awe, skepticism, candor, wisdom, and grace, he analyzed and chronicled his internal and external universes, from the backyard of our Randallstown home all the way to Russia and the Galapagos.

Water was his element. He rose early to fish near the Potomac from his rubber dinghy “Testubo.” In the Canadian Rockies, we glided across pristine Moraine Lake in a canoe, in Bar Harbor we warily kayaked through the shipping channel, and in the Caribbean and the Pacific we snorkeled in the reefs. Whether peering into a Liberty reservoir puddle glistening with frogs’ eggs or gazing out on the Atlantic to spot puffins and porpoises, he did indeed enlist all his senses, his notebooks, and his photographic memory to record what he encountered.

“In the sense that wilderness inspires and instructs in ways that cannot be explained, I believe it is a kind of magic,” Jack wrote in “Leaning Sycamores.” “I believe that the river weaves spells, and I believe this is no mere metaphor but a concrete and palpable fact. The river is nothing so vague as a dream, but rather, it leads us to dream ourselves, and that is a potent reality.”

Jack was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1948, the son of Jack Allen and Lorene Wennerstrom. He grew up in Skokie. Early on, curiosity drew him out-of-doors—to the tall-grass prairies, the lakes, and the streams. “Without the potential for discovery, life is unutterably dull,” he has written. Fishing with his father, he became enthusiastic about fresh-water angling. After Deerfield High School, he majored in English at Lake Forest College, graduating in 1970; English was my major at Hollins. We had met at a party in Pittsburgh, where I’m from. In January 1976, in his first letter to me (OK, I confess—I wrote to him first), he stated his case: “I would like to write to you, speak to you, meet you again, or whatever. As you know, it is very difficult to be heard in this world. Knock twice if you hear me. Yours in all manner of great good wonderment…” In another letter, he confided: “Certainly honesty leaves one wide open at times, and I find myself often reclusive and aloof in my own simple defense, but it is the core of my pride and I would not wish it to be any other way.” We spent a Valentine’s Day weekend together in Evanston. He flew to Alexandria for a visit, and a few months later moved in. He dubbed me “the firm duchess of the fiery realm” for my cooking. We had mated for life—and now, beyond. I was born two days before him. Our cozy rancher, where we had moved to in 1986, was built in the year of our birth.

In his first nonfiction book, “Soldiers Delight Journal: Exploring a Globally Rare Ecosystem” (1995, University of Pittsburgh Press), this extraordinary amateur naturalist chronicled his year getting to know the plants, animals, and geology of this 1,900-acre preserve 10 minutes from our home. Sandy Glover’s illustrations added grace notes, and Roger Tory Peterson in his Foreword commented that the author did not pursue just “the rare or exotic.”

His second nonfiction book, “Leaning Sycamores: Natural Worlds of the Upper Potomac” (1996, The Johns Hopkins University Press), captured “the magic of moving water and its powerful effect on mind and spirit.”

With a journal approach and from his stream-side “office” near Liberty reservoir, in “New Millennium Journal: Confessions of a Doubter” (2012), he took a hopeful approach “to extract simple solace” from the struggles ahead. His self-published novels are “Black Coffee” (2009),” Home Ground” (2010), and “Pheasant Alley” (2011).

In 2016, Jack teamed up with our good friend Frank Wisniewski, a talented photographer, to self-publish “Soldiers Delight Journal Revisited: a Photographic Ramble.” Frank also designed this coffee-table book commemorating the 25th anniversary of Jack’s first book on his favorite place to explore. Frank and Jack liked to compose songs together, and Jack taught Frank to fish.

Jack was my life’s love, my Prince Valiant. Before marrying in Dolgellau, Wales, in June 1977, we lived together for a year in Alexandria, Va. He had left Chicago to be with me. Add to those 43 years the many months beforehand of falling in love via those long letters and phone calls. Throughout those years, he wrapped me warmly and wisely in unwavering affection, his antennae atuned to the dangers Out There.

Even strangers would comment on how we liked to hold hands. At the end, during those 35 hours in Sinai Hospital’s ICU, I could feel his responsive squeezes confirming our love. But he could not surmount the aortic dissection and massive stroke that had occurred so suddenly. Incredibly organized, he had advanced directives and a death plan: cremation, no burial, being remembered at his favorite fishing and Soldiers Delight spots, and a celebration of his life, which will take place next spring.

I especially am buoyed by the wide, deep reservoir of his lyrical words: love letters, hand-made cards with silly verses, seven published books, manuscripts, mash notes, memoirs, a Mac with gigabytes of memories. A year ago, he had started a sequel to his three-volume unpublished autobiography. He also contributed to anthologies, kept expressive travel diaries, contributed 40 articles and essays to national publications, crafted poems, and sent out a multitude of thoughtful, witty e-mails. As a contributing editor, he had written many articles for “Bird Watchers Digest.” Between 1986 and 2006, he taught 91 classes: 40 for BioTrek Naturalists (he was president) and the rest at Loyola in Maryland, Harford Community College, Roland Park Country School, Johns Hopkins, UMBC, and Towson. As a naturalist, he led 42 other programs and hikes.

Jack guided BioTrek from 2002-2006 and for a year was the staff naturalist at Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area in Owings Mills and also served as president of Friends of Soldiers Delight. His other brief jobs—among them customer service, law library messenger, high-school teacher, and assistant bookstore manager—are far from what define him. He was a writer: daily, analytically, devotedly, perceptively. While I pursued my higher education communications career, he could ponder, wander the trails, read, feed me, amuse me, amaze me—and write. Much as he downplayed list-making, he stacked up notebooks of detailed stats: rainfall, life-list and yard birds, tomato harvest, house and car repairs, free-lance income, flora and fauna by specific site, and “strong readers” he knew (even I didn’t make that elite list). The books he so thoroughly read ranged across history (natural, local, world, and human), archaeology, philosophy, biography, geography, poetry, and literature. Nabokov, John Clare, John Muir, Emerson, and Thoreau were among the writers he respected. The music he liked included folk and early Bob Dylan. Though usually for the underdog, as a hockey fan he was glad the Caps were ahead.

Six-foot-three, lanky with long, luxuriously thick hair—not a gray one in sight—my sweetie was all big heart and big brain. His deep insights, keen observations, expansive metaphysics, disarming candor, and skeptical eye illuminate his writing.

While content to stay home most of the time, he was my ever-curious traveling companion, deploying the navigational skills of his Viking ancestors whether in Florida or Finland. In our 60s, following my retirement in 2008 from the Johns Hopkins University as editor of the Alumni Magazine Consortium, we had time to venture further internationally, especially by sea: Alaska, Canada, the Norwegian fjords, the Baltic, Ecuador, Iceland, Scandinavia, northern Europe, the British Isles, and last summer Bermuda. His stimulating conversation made for lingering dinners. He was my rememberer, my muse, my soulmate, my watercolors’ best critic. We were quick to argue, even quicker to make up.

Jack’s parents, sister Candy, and stepmother Nancy Wennerstrom died before him. His Wennerstrom survivors are his aunt Shirlee Suffka and her sons Kurt and Dean of Glenview, IL. His step-siblings are Lincoln and Barbara Materna, June Dales, and Wendy Johannsen. On the Shoemaker side, those mourning his loss include my sister Sally Driscoll (husband Giles) of Mentor, OH, and sons Dr. Evan and Dr. Eric; my twin brothers Carl Shoemaker (wife Maria and son David) of Pittsburgh, PA, and Bill Shoemaker and friend Cheri Williams of Chapin, SC; Bill’s former wife Kim Kehler of Camp Hill, PA; and Bill and Kim’s children Annie (husband Pete Young and children Chance and Josie) and Dane (wife Morgan and son Lincoln).

The world of Jack Wennerstrom was not one of social media “likes.” While he was nominated for the John Burroughs Medal, he got a kick out of some of the quirky ways his work received attention. He noticed, for example, that his Authors Guild website (jackwennerstrom.com) was getting many hits from Brazilians. As he grew older, his concerns deepened about the future of humankind and the environment. He realized he had said most of what he wanted to say, but that there would always be more to express. “Your ash may rise and fuse with light, with ether and with earth, but ‘you’ will not be there, nor, some day, will our species. Accept that you are star-dust and to star-dust will return,” he noted in his unpublished memoir, “Light and Shadow.” The light of his literary legacy, I truly believe, will shine even brighter in the years to come. It will inspire those who find joy in learning about the natural world.

—Donna Shoemaker
January 15, 2020



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Memorial contributions may be made to:

Friends of Soldiers Delight
Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc.
c/o Lynell Tobler, Vice President
10012 Lyons Mill Road
Owings Mills, MD 21117

or to a charity of your choice.


Please visit jackwennerstrom.com and “The Baltimore Sun” for the January 14, 2020, news obituary by Fred Rasmussen and the January 5 paid death notice.
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RK

Richard Kramer

Posted at 11:04pm
So sorry to learn of Jack's passing. Jack was a best friend of mine at Lake Forest College and many of my best College memories include Jack. I will never forget that winning smile, infectious laugh or Jack's way with words.
Rest in peace good buddy.
Richard Kramer
Weston, Connecticut
BS

Bill Shoemaker

Posted at 10:17am
Cheri and I express our deepest sympathy to you, Donna, my incredible sister. I will miss his wit and sharing his love of nature together. I regret never having the opportunity to show him some spots in SC , and hopefully someday in better times can share them with him vicariously thru you Donna. My heart will forever be warmed when I think of the hikes together with my children finding fossils and salamanders. RIP Jack, until we meet again.... Bill and Cheri
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