Chautauqua literary community remembers Rodney Lay


Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

Rodney Lay spent the majority of his life without poetry.

The England-born engineer’s work ethic kept him focused, and his family kept him busy. After hearing about Chautauqua from friends at church, Rodney, his wife, Meg, and their three children spent a week at Chautauqua — a trip that eventually led to more weeks and a buying a home on Ames with friends.

After Rodney retired from more than 35 years as an electrical engineer, he had time to take classes and to explore the grounds.

“He had a real desire to not have lived an empty life,” Meg said. “He would go to everything at Chautauqua. I would get tired just looking at him.”

Rodney began to study literary arts, and after taking a few poetry and prose classes, he became excited and began to write.

At the time, the Writers’ Center was not part of Chautauqua, so Chautauquans Paul and Mary Jean Irion agreed to house the writers each week at no cost. And when Mary Jean wanted to retire, they thought they would lose their place to stay.

“Rodney decided that the answer to their problems was that Chautauqua needed to take responsibility for the Writers’ Center,” Meg said.

He was instrumental in bringing the Writers’ Center to the Institution, said Mary Anne Morefield, former president of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends and friend to Rodney and Meg. He served a seven-year term as president and initiated the literary journal Chautauqua.

Rodney published two poetry books — Internal Weather and Together — and at the 2011 Chautauqua Writers’ Festival, he discussed self-publishing. Instead of selling his work, he gave it away because he wanted people to read his writing.

He inspired longtime Chautauquan KeeKee Minor to plan to do the same when she publishes her memoir.

“I think he was very farsighted,” Minor said. “He was a quality person with a very good sense of humor, and when he explained something wrapped up in all of this humor, he made very poignant points about various subjects.”

Together, his most recent collection of poetry, is organized by the decades and years he spent with his wife. Pictures of Meg’s paintings are also in the book, and it is a way for Meg to remember all the times they shared.

By Rodney Lay

The affectionate sun floods
past French Toile drapes

framing the red fall dogwood
leaves beyond my porch.

Proud deep-furrowed bark
way past its prime.

Long slow closing chords
amazing in their power to grace.

Another room
my love moves gently.

Contentment shrouds
the light shadows. In my fall

I recognize
this could be complete.

Although they met in early adolescence in England, they didn’t end up getting together until their late teens. They married in 1961 and moved to the United States in 1967 with their children.

“I used to, I still do, cry about the fact that when you lose your spouse, particularly one you’ve known since you were 12, you’re losing a lot of your history, and you can’t share that with too many people,” Meg said. “He was the one who carried all the things we used to laugh about, and to have the poems is a wonderful way of remembering.”

Meg and Rodney spent their years together as best friends who shared love and laughter, and many fellow Chautauquans describe Rodney by his witty humor.

Rodney was usually seen wearing a white, floppy hat while biking around the grounds, and his bicycle is a smile-inducing memory for Meg. He bought the “20-buck flea market bike” and was adamant no one would steal it because it looked awful.

Meg said her husband, who died on April 25 after a long battle with multiple myeloma, was at his best in social situations and was “quite a ham” when speaking in public.

There will be a remembrance with readings of his work at 4:30 p.m. today on the Alumni Hall porch, which brings his life and dedication to the Writers’ Center full circle.

“I remember Rodney standing up and introducing programs for the Literary Arts Center on the porch,” Morefield said. “That’s where Meg wanted it.”

Meg considers Chautauqua to be a “healing place” but said it is difficult to be back at a place filled with memories without Rodney.

At the gathering today, she will read two of his poems from Together.

“We had so much time together, and I’m so grateful for that,” Meg said. “The bad thing is you wonder how life will go on, but I wouldn’t want my life to be lessened because he’s gone — that would be very ungrateful for the time we had together.”

Rodney Lay will be remembered at a gathering at 4:30 p.m. today on the the porch of Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.