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Personal Recollections of Francis G. Okie

by William McGaughey (with additions and corrections from Jesse Okie and comments from Tim White)

It has now (2010) been almost thirty-five years since Francis Gurney Okie died. Reading through his lines, I remember the poet himself reciting certain of them. The ones I particularly remember are:

“HE THAT HATH the love of the Lamb
Who draws this parable,
In parable he issues forth,
St John the Divine speaking,
Ideal his melody of silence sings,
Ideal the gateway of the Lord.
Gentle John of Patmos ancient,
Blessed aid in quiet waiting,
He knows a language of creation
Of the rhythmics of the Lamb
Here is a door opened and a key
To the miracle of tongues,
A long forgotten wisdom
Once a searchlight of the soul,
So in signs and wonders,
John shows the way.”

Another would be:

“ HE THAT IS the event of it,
He binds with the bonds of it,
Substance and a blessed form,
To presuppose it
And put it to test
And use it in the parable of the Babe.”

And again:

“ THE SYMBOLS write
Impromptu, and the emblems
Comprehensive past belief, echo
A voice ye wot not of.
So being, the solar tongue
Spins out the parallel
And tersely tells the man
His prospering way.”

I do not understand the religious or symbolic meaning of many of these verses. I do understand a reference to John of Patmos, the Book of Revelation and the end times. I see frequent references to the technique of Gematria as “once a searchlight of the soul.” For me, the verse speaks for itself with an intensity of expression that arises from disciplined creative thought carried out over many years.

I do not know that Francis Okie put this verse in any kind of order. In 1972 and 1973, Helen White worked with him to arrange and select the best sequences of lines from the stacks of yellow lined paper on which the verses were originally written; Dick Okie then wrote the introduction. The manuscript sat on Dick Okie’s dresser for 17 years until his daughter Susan took it to Boston and had it printed and bound into a booklet as a gift from the three children to their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary on July 19th, 1990. The verses are presented here in the same order as in the booklet.

I first met Francis G. Okie in late 1968 or early 1969 when his son and daughter-in-law, Dick and Susan Okie, invited me to come to Francis Okie’s house on Peninsula Road in Dellwood, Minnesota, on White Bear Lake, after I had met them at St. Clement’s Episcopal church in St. Paul. This house was built from two smaller houses that were dragged across the ice in1929 after the summer house had burned down. Francis Okie owned it for many years and then sold the house to his son and daughter-in-law who lived with him until his death on September 1, 1975. His grandson, Jesse, also lived there for a time. (Francis Okie’s death came exactly one month before his first grandchild named Okie, Jesse’s son Owen, was born.) Francis Okie was invariably dressed in business attire, with a tweed jacket, as he sat in a chair working on his verse.

The first time I visited, Francis Okie told me how he had started on this verse. I wish I could remember more details. I think he told me he had a mystical vision, perhaps involving a fiery cannon ball, which kept him awake for some time. (This detail is in question; Jesse Okie has no knowledge of it.) This was in the mid 1930s after Hitler had come to power in Germany. Francis Okie made reference to the use of Gematria in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as Dick Okie explains in his introduction to the published work.

I visited the house on Peninsula Road a number of times in the next five years. The Okies had an informal reception in that house for me and my first wife, Carol, in 1973, at the time of our wedding. We also attended Francis Okie’s funeral service in the Episcopalian church in White Bear Lake in 1975. Francis Okie was always a pleasant conversation partner. Although he did not repeat the revelations of our first meeting, he did share other experiences such as how, as a young man, he had read of the St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palace in a newspaper at a barber shop before he came to Minnesota to live.

After moving to Minnesota to work for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M), Francis Okie headed the company’s research department starting in 1922. His own invention, Wet-or-Dry sandpaper, was its first major commercially successful product. It contributed greatly to occupational health in the nation’s factories by allowing parts to be sanded under flowing water rather than produce dust which workers might inhale. The juxtaposition of earlier corporate success with later production of mystical verse makes Francis Okie a unique figure among poets.

I understand that the verse was not appreciated in church circles of his day when the mainline Protestant churches were into social activism rather than end-times mysticism. So I see Francis G. Okie as a rather lonely figure, typical of intellectuals, who was driven by an inner vision which he was glad to share with anyone willing to listen. His immediate family did, of course, appreciate him for who he was. In the next generation, Dick and Susan Okie’s children were son Jesse, and daughters Mari and Susan. Another son, Francis Gurney Okie III, died in 1963. The publication of his verse, compiled by Helen White, on Dick and Susan Okie’s 50th wedding anniversary is a tribute to both the affection in which “Grandfather Okie” was held and to the written legacy that he left behind.

Helen White was a writer and researcher who did work for the Minnesota Historical Society. In her expert hands, Francis Okie’s verse was compiled. Helen White lived in Taylors Falls, Minnesota, in a house in the historic “Angel’s Hill” district which is visible when one crosses the St. Croix river and enters Minnesota from Wisconsin. A brewery used to be in the basement of this house when the Shotmuller family owned it. She also owned and restored another house called “the little yellow house” and wrote a book about it. For thirty years, Helen White published the “Dalles Visitor” newspaper, distributed free to tourists to Taylors Falls. She worked on historical books relating to the Voyageurs, Ignatius Donnelley, and even alleged UFO sightings in the St. Croix valley in the 1850s. Helen White died two years ago.

Her son, Tim White, a friend of Jesse Okie beginning at the time when Jesse’s grandfather was writing poetry, quit a job at Boeing to become a professional dog-sled racer. He was an early contestant in the 1150-mile Iditarod race between Anchorage and Nome in Alaska and participated in numerous other races over the years in places ranging from Argentina to Siberia. In later years, Tim became a custom manufacturer of dog sleds and a cult figure in that sport. He still raises dogs and makes parts for sleds on his wooded property near Grand Marais, Minnesota. Tim and I hung out together at that 50th wedding anniversary party where the booklet containing Francis Okie’s verse was distributed to guests. He offers some recollections below.

The Okie family was personally kind to me. I was often invited to dinner parties at their home on Peninsula Road to meet other persons of my age. Dick Okie died in 1996 and Susan Okie in 2006. Regrettably, I was in China on both occasions and so could not attend their funerals. To me, they were like second parents.

 

Comments from Tim White:

During the period when I saw him (Francis Okie) most he had two dogs, his own Basset hound type, “Wags”, and Jesse's sister's “Angus”, a black Border Collie type.

The line “presuppose and put it to the test” stayed with me forever after hearing him working on it, as a general precept for learning and living.

Also in my mind his lines were about a kind of correspondence between words and letters and their deeper relationships and connotations, as manifestations of other realities, more than the simple definitions, their links with the physical and psychological world, another dimension of Baudelaire's poetry  Correspondence. Or Musset,  something about the moon like the dot on an I? (“Il
etait dans la nuit brune la lune comme un point sur un i.”)

 

Frank Okie was a printer in Bucks County Pennsylvania (fox hunting country?) who was experimenting with inks when he discovered something that could be adapted as an adhesive for sandpaper. Possibly saved 3M with a viable growth product when they had invested in among other things the land near Ilgen City on the North Shore thinking it was valuable abrasive stone but turned out to be mediocre rock.

But the connection is right there, there for a printer to understand words and letters existing in many dimensions, as type, as ink on paper, as thoughts, so why not assume other levels as well?

I see the connection also to John of Patmos. This was the John whose gospel was the clearest manifestation of the interaction between greek logic and jewish religion and mysticism that became Christianity. The greeks seek understanding, the jews are looking for a sign.

IN the beginning was the word and the word was god and the word was with god. Substitute the original greek word, logos, with all that it still implies in our word logic, the structure, pattern, organization of the universe. This is a definition of God that makes atheism an oxymoron. When I tell people I am a Christian I have that in mind. Probably could answer for many other religions.

 
 

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