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Life Is Not A Dress Rehearsal: A Memory of Kate Worley

Contributed by Diana Green

I haven’t talked to Kate Worley in ten years. So why should her passing this week take me so by shock, sadden me so deeply?

Because that was the way Kate was with people. She got to you. There was no dodging with Kate, no false fronts. She gave you no choice but to be yourself.

There were certainly many who knew her better, or longer or deeper than I, yet if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer some memories of the impression her life made on mine.

When we met on the day I began my brief internship with Reed Waller on Omaha the Cat Dancer, Kate and I both knew we’d met somewhere before. But neither of us could remember where. Yet the sense of foreknowledge was so overpowering as to be undeniable. We never did figure it out, but it put us right at home with one another. On many occasions, the three of us – Reed, Kate and I – would find ourselves in one diner or another. Small restaurants, diners and greasy spoons were a passion for them both, and they knew all the best ones. Their favorite, the now defunct What’s Cooking, became a favorite of mine as well. The wait staff knew them on sight.

As Waller and Worley were both out as bisexual though the letters page in Omaha; I felt a reasonable comfort and only small reservation being out with them myself. I felt it necessary to be honest for a smooth working relationship. I was glad I phrased it that way. My work put me at a drawing board kitty corner (so to speak) from Reed’s, while Kate wrote Omaha and Roger Rabbit stories in the adjacent room. This made me privy to some of the day-to-day mundanities of their life, and on more than one occasion, one or both of them expressed frustration over intrusions into their privacy. These intrusions happened because they were out, and because they did a comic that was at least in part about sex. I never heard any harassing or threatening phone calls or anything harmful. These were more like annoyances and irritants from of people who had no boundaries in these areas. “Once you come out,” one of them once said, “everyone trusts you with their stuff, whether you want them to or not.”

Kate was quiet but sharp. We were driving back from an eatery and I noticed a young lady wearing a very short skirt and very high heels. I commented that when I was a kid, I used to think that was just a fantastic way to dress, but now all I could think of was how much those shoes hurt. Kate replied, “yeah, I never wear those any more”, and she almost whispered “in public” as an afterthought.

One afternoon I showed up for work a bit wobbly. I had been through a minor corrective surgery the week before and was not at full strength. Instead of my usual duties, Reed bought out his comic collection and had us put it in better order. Kate was also there working on other things, but none of us really worked too hard that day. We spent a sunny autumn afternoon talking about comics and just enjoying the day and each other’s company. Kate expressed frustration with some letters she’d been getting suggesting Chuck’s father was not really dead. “He was cremated! His ashes were sprinkled right there in the story, on panel! He’s not coming back!”

Another memorable lunch came after the opening ceremony for a local gallery show of comic art, called Misfit Lit. I was lucky enough to join the group, including Reed and Kate, Jamie Hernandez and S. Clay Wilson (who is an incorrigible flirt with delightful manners) for that lunch. Other than graciously accepting an offered condom from Clay, the whole day is a blur to me. As a comic geekete, I was in awe of the celebrity, but thanks to Reed and Kate’s ease and charm and genuine warmth, that wore off rather quickly and after that, I was just more grateful to know such fine people.

Besides the internship, we were all members of a comics creators group/drinking club known as the Minnesota Cartoonists’ League, which Reed was instrumental in founding. Reed also published the newsletter for a time. The last Tuesday night of each month would find us at O’Gara’s Pub in St. Paul, the former locale of Charles Schulz’s dad’s barbershop (with the authentic Schulz art and the barber chair enshrined there to this day to prove it!). We’d fly between one conversation and another, as new friends quickly became old friends. One night Selby Kelly, Walt’s widow, came in to address us. I remember her and Kate chatting afterwards and the two of them grinning from ear to ear.

These things may not have happened exactly that way. But this is the way I remember them, and if someone else’s truth is a little off from mine, I can live with it.

I’d like to offer more such stories, but truth be told, most of that time with them is a happy blur for me. It always made me happy just to know them.

After the internship ended, we lost touch briefly. When time came for my graduation, I called to invite them both. That’s when Kate told me of Reed’s cancer and impending surgery. She actually apologized to me for having to miss the graduation portfolio show! Needless to say, Reed’s health came first, and as did so many others, I told her to be sure and call on me if they needed anything at all.

After that, our lives drifted as lives will do. Eventually we found our way back across each other’s paths, every now and again. The changes in their lives are more public and need not be restated here. As this is Kate’s story and not mine, I’ll not go into my trials and tribulations now. Suffice to say that time wounded and healed us all in ways we never saw coming.

I did see Kate one more time, just before she left Minneapolis. I was lunching with a (then) new girlfriend at, of all places, What’s Cooking! Kate came in with Jim Vance. Before we left, I went over to their table to say hi, and she introduced me to Jim. We talked briefly about this and that (including my favorite work of Jim’s, the much neglected Owlhoots) and she and I agreed to get together another day. I knew she was moving soon, so I called and left a message suggesting we do coffee, but it was not to be. Bad timing, I guess. I never saw Kate again.

Like many admirers of her work, I was taken aback by her death. As she wrote in Omaha, people in mourning carry their own gloom. Though we were a quarter of a country apart physically and each had our own very different lives, I like living in possibility. And knowing that the possibility of being taken by surprise by Kate’s wit will never again be realized makes my world a little smaller. I know that those closest to her feel the same with an intensity that makes my sorrow pale. All I can offer is the hope that knowing the loss is shared serves as at least a measure of solace.

Rest well, Kate Worley. You were loved for your work and your spirit, more than you knew.

This title, “Life Is Not A Dress Rehearsal,” was Kate’s favorite saying, according to her bubble gum card.

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