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Facing cancer, local writer publishes his life’s stories

May 16, 2019 GMT

The author portrays himself as a close cousin to hapless and about as nimble as a mountain goat in cowboy boots.

In one chapter he inadvertently stumbles off a dock into icy water. This happens again later that night as he reaches from the dock to try to net a lunker crawdad.

Kalispell native Richard Thomas “Rick” Funk, 66, seems to be a natural-born storyteller. He spins yarns, one after another. He finds joy in writing.

These two predilections, combined with a sense of urgency tied to a cancer diagnosis, recently yielded a 148-page, self-published collection of a sample of Funk’s work.

“Tom’s Tattered Tales” features an eclectic compilation of non-fiction and fiction. Many of the book’s 42 chapters have a light-hearted tone. Many focus on hunting and fishing and the delights and tribulations of such pursuits. One chapter starts with lyrical observations about an encounter with a snowy owl but morphs into a tutorial of sorts about how to make sound decisions when buying binoculars.

Most of the book’s essays or short stories have happy endings.

Yet Funk’s “Tom’s Tattered Tales” reveals between the lines a deeper side of the man. It becomes clear that he walks through the world with his heart wide open.

An essay from 2005 that is not included in the collection describes a night Funk spent in an aging fire tower after the end of his first marriage. A powerful thunderstorm accompanies his musings.

“The chaos outside mirrors perfectly my inner turmoil, because for the first time in 22 years I am alone. The brilliance of each flash, the sensation of static electricity dancing across my flesh, and the tympanic rumble of the thunder serve to remind me that I am still among the living; but the hollow shell where my heart used to reside begs to ask, why?”

A retired teacher and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and National Guard, Funk learned about three months ago that he has liver cancer. He is beginning treatment that will involve injecting small radioactive beads that target tumors.

He has four children and two step-children.

Funk said one reaction from friends and family to his cancer diagnosis was encouragement to go ahead and publish a collection of his writings.

He has, for example, written a column for The Daily Inter Lake for more than 10 years. His “Tattered Tales” column seems to have a loyal following of readers who appreciate Funk’s self-deprecation, humor and gift for describing the enchantment that can pulse within the everyday.

He was asked during a recent interview whether his book is a hedge against mortality.

Funk pondered the question. His wife, Glenda, answered.

“I think he’s mainly just leaving memories for people,” she said.

Funk chimed in.

“I think it’s an attempt to share experiences I have had that most people don’t or won’t have,” he said.

Or might prefer to avoid.

In the chapter titled “GAF - A History,” Funk describes a fishing outing to a lake with best friend Guy A. Foy.

Funk writes, “I was tying my snap swivel into place when he hooked a nice three-bound bass. Wanting to give him room to beach his bass, I moved to the other side.

“In a split second I found myself up to my shirt pockets in a sinkhole filled with the foulest smelling muck you can imagine. GAF showed his concern for my wellbeing by falling over laughing.”

Funk discloses in a following chapter that Foy confessed one day to a key reason he enjoys Funk’s company.

“Funny things seem to happen when you’re around,” Foy said.

Funk was one of three children born to Thomas Willard Funk and Phyllis Miller Funk. Thomas Funk worked at the railroad ties plant in Somers. Phyllis was a homemaker and a classroom paraprofessional.

Funk graduated from Flathead High School in 1971 and then graduated from the University of Montana in 1989. He also studied at the University of Montana Western.

He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1975 to 1976. Funk said he guarded Strategic Air Command aircraft armed with nuclear weapons at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane.

“Basically, we would stand outside and count the rivets on the airplanes,” Funk said.

He became a public school teacher in 1989 and spent the majority of his career at Kila School, teaching English and drama and working as a librarian. He retired in 2007.

Funk met Glenda when he was still teaching. He was offering a first-aid class for educators. She was a speech and language pathologist and had to take the class.

“I didn’t pay any attention to him at the time,” she said. “I didn’t want to get involved. I was divorced. He was divorced.”

The couple married in 1999. Today, their relationship rings with playful banter.

After Funk’s cancer diagnosis seemed to demand he quickly pull together a compilation of his writings, he communicated with Paul Nockleby, a former classmate at Flathead High School who lives now in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Funk knew that Nockleby had worked as a writer and editor and had served also as an acquisitions editor for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He asked Nockleby for assistance in assembling and editing a collection and with moving it toward self-publication.

Nockleby said he was happy to help. He worked quickly.

During a phone interview Thursday, Nockleby described Funk’s writing.

“It’s vivid, charming, down-to-earth,” he said. “You can see things through his eyes. He doesn’t put on airs.”

In the book’s foreword, Nockleby writes, “In these 42 pieces - mostly non-fiction but a few fiction - Rick combines intimate practical knowledge of the outdoors with his delightful, amusing, self-deprecating spirit in a plain style that radiates joy in almost every sentence.”

The chapters frequently communicate a sense of longing for simpler times or, at least, times when life’s trials seemed more focused on essentials and less on the existential dilemmas of the digital age.

Funk writes that when he was a boy the four seasons were occupied by outdoors activities: “spring = fishing; summer = baseball; autumn = hunting; winter = sledding.”

One chapter describes an event that involved luring a “monster trout” to take a pale morning dun fly. Funk writes about the fight to land the fish (which included him wading feverishly into the river in his new dress cowboy boots) and the presence of a young man Funk didn’t know who happened to witness the drama and the catch-and-release that followed.

Funk writes, “My week of solitude passes too quickly, and when I return home and share the story of the giant fish with my wife and daughters, the strangest thing happens. They don’t believe me.”

Later, the young man who witnessed the catch of the big fish loops back into the story in a serendipitous coincidence.

In another chapter, titled “A Short Meandering,” Funk writes about a summer outing he and other high school students took to Wild Horse Island.

“I have quite a reputation for hiking,” he writes. “I am often referred to as ‘the crab.’ My pace is such that I almost appear to be going backward.”

Meanwhile, Funk is determined to move forward. He published 100 copies of “Tom’s Tattered Tales.” He acknowledges there might be another book in him. It’s clear that unpublished stories flow through him like the Flathead River in spring.

His list of writers he admires includes, but is not limited to: Robert Ruark, who wrote “Horn of the Hunter” and “The Old Man and the Boy; Jack O’Connor, best known as a writer for Outdoor Life; and, Patrick McManus, known as a humorist and outdoors writer.

Funk said faith in God has provided comfort.

“He led me through a bunch of very difficult times,” he said.

The liver cancer might take him out, Funk acknowledged. But he is planning to go gopher hunting this spring and has applied for moose, sheep and bison permits for the fall.

Funk’s column about his night in a fire tower ends with a description of being greeted in the morning by birds singing “songs of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance” as they emerge from places where they had weathered the storm.

“They too shake off the remnants of last night, as they spring into flight singing God’s praise, because they never doubted his love.”

Rick Funk will sell and sign his book, “Tom’s Tattered Tales” from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 17 at The Daily Inter Lake. The price will be 15.)

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.