Coping with Grief
We would like to offer our sincere support to anyone coping with grief. Enter your email below for our complimentary daily grief messages. Messages run for up to one year and you can stop at any time. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.
Missoula - Bryan DiSalvatore -- writer, reader, teacher, surfer, baseball fan, bus driver, brilliant friend and inspiration to many -- died peacefully at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula on Jan. 1, 2024, several days after suffering a cardiac arrest at home from which he never regained consciousness. He was 75.
The day before he collapsed, he and his wife, Deirdre (Dee) McNamer, had a long discussion about how they wanted to see their lives unfold in the days ahead, and the vision was one of good books, new and ongoing writing projects, lively conversations with friends, attention to the ordinary, daily pleasures, and a return trip to the south of Italy, where Bryan’s paternal grandparents lived hardscrabble lives in several small mountain towns before seeking better opportunities in America, initially in Haverhill, Mass., where they worked with other Italian immigrants in a shoe factory. Bryan’s father Vincent (Sal) served in WWII in the U.S. Army as a medic during Gen. Patton’s Sicily campaign. Sal met Dorothy Childe, a sergeant in the British Army, in Brussels at the close of the war and they ultimately settled in La Crescenta-Montrose, California, where they raised Bryan and his younger sister Victoria.
Sal worked as a journeyman machinist for Menasco Aerosystems, which specialized in landing gears, employing his gift for deciphering and assembling mechanical gizmos in a way that Bryan always admired and envied. His own early and fervent interests involved throwing himself atop boards to ride big ocean water, being a football jock of a sort, messing around in predictable high school foolery while making top grades. A high school counselor recommended that he apply to Yale University, and he was accepted as a scholarship student, the first of his generation in the family to go to college.
At Yale, he studied English literature, and the world of writers and writing opened up to him, particularly as it was represented by wildcat wordsmiths like Jack Kerouac. Words and stories could take you places you had never known you had wanted, badly, to go. That realization opened up his life and, in some ways, defined it. At Yale, he also made friendships with smart, funny, irreverent, exploratory classmates, some of whom he remained in regular contact with his entire life.
After graduating in 1970, he tested out various modes of self-expansion that included working as a short-order cook in Maui, where he was reembracing surfing seriously and joyously; long-distance truck driving for a small company based in Rathdrum, Idaho; a stint of several years in Missoula where he completed an MFA degree in fiction writing at the University of Montana (writing having, by then, assumed a central place in his life.)
While in Maui, he had a brief exchange with a lanky California surfer named Bill Finnegan that involved the sale of Bryan’s 1951 Ford to Finnegan for $150 (due “whenever”) before Bryan returned to the mainland. He and Finnegan later regrouped in the late ‘70s when Bryan was teaching writing classes at the University of Guam, and they embarked on a global wave-seeking journey that Finnegan ultimately chronicled in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography in 2016.
That extended and seriously strenuous adventure -- five continents, 20 countries, very little money, bouts of malaria and dengue, injuries and more -- contributed to a surfing life that also included, as he wrote in a recent magazine piece, “joy, joy beyond speaking, tons of it, more than I ever deserved.” Drawn back to Missoula, he worked odd jobs while writing magazine pieces and trying to sell them. In late 1985, he submitted a mournful, funny, and ultimately triumphant account to the New Yorker magazine about the dismal fortunes that season of both his local softball team, The Montana Review of Books, and the individual lives of some of the players involved. That short essay so impressed the New Yorker’s legendary editor William Shawn that he invited Bryan to write more for the magazine, choosing any topic that caught his interest. He subsequently wrote many other short essays, or “Talks of the Town” as they are called, and several long feature stories on Dynamite, Merle Haggard, Long Distance Truckers, among others. He gravitated always to subjects that addressed the struggles of hard physical work, hard-won skills, and the experiences and yearnings of those who had not enjoyed the privileges of an easy road.
By this time, he had become entangled with Missoulian reporter Deirdre McNamer, and they were eventually married on July 14, 1988, in a small ceremony in a condo on the side of Big Mountain near Whitefish, followed a couple of days later by a big- bash reception at Snowbowl outside Missoula.
After several editorial shakeups at the New Yorker, he found a more welcoming free-lance home in other magazines such as Outside and Islands and Surfers Journal. He traveled extensively to research his biography of John Montgomery Ward, the late-19th century National League baseball player who deserted professional baseball’s establishment to create an “outlaw” organization pressing for players’ rights. A Clever Base-Ballist:The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward was published by Pantheon Books. He also wrote the copy for Truck Stop, a compelling book of photographs by Marc F. Wise of long-haul truckers on the job.
Bryan held several visiting writer positions at colleges across the country and at the University of Montana, teaching nonfiction writing, work he enjoyed, and invested in intently.
In recent years he drove school buses for Beach Transportation in Missoula and for the Mavericks Legion teams during the summer months. He greatly enjoyed the company of the players, their parents and their coaches.
And he continued always to write. He biked or walked almost daily to a small office downtown to work on free-lance pieces, on two eccentric and brilliant novels he was revising , on critical comments on the work of writer friends, on editing for several professional journalists, and on his extensive general correspondence with friends, far and wide, most of it sent via paper and envelope. He sent handwritten thank-you notes to everyone who ever hosted him, helped him, did a large or small favor for him.
But in the end, the chronology of his life is less important than the orientation of it, which was defined by an essential curiosity about others. He had the ability to recognize and endorse the particularity of each person he cared about, a little or a lot, and to fan their sense of their own possibilities. Those persons could range from a shy second-grader on a school bus, to a longtime friend who was struggling in some fashion, to a patient young waiter in Naples who let him practice his Italian on him, to a country-kid story-teller who had no idea, until he convinced her of it, that she was a real writer; an interesting writer; a go-somewhere writer.
Several years ago, he began twice-weekly Italian lessons, Zoomed at first, with three friends. In October of 2023, he and Dee traveled to southern Italy and he was able to meet for the first time an Italian cousin, Mario Di Ture and his sister Pina, and visit the tiny mountain town above Caserta where their grandfathers had been brothers. It was a memorable and purely heart-warming day, culminating in a long lunch at a 16th-century stone building covered with heady, fresh rosemary, a former wine press owned and run by Mario’s best pal.
The day was calm, gorgeous and dappled.
A beautiful man, Bryan, lifted his glass to all of us, and in his inimitable words, found the most eloquent and simple way to distill his gratitude for the day, the people, and the perfect moment that held us all inside it.
“Put it on a smiling postcard,” he might also have written, as he did about another dazzling day. “Send it everywhere at once.”
Bryan DiSalvatore is survived by his wife, Deirdre McNamer, whose own life has been immeasurably enhanced and made joyful by his; by his much appreciated sister Victoria Schmidt and her husband Larry; by his best friend Bill Finnegan;; by his brother-in-law Joseph McNamer; sister-in-law Kate Gadbow and her husband Daryl; sister- in-law Megan McNamer and her husband John Carter; niece Alison Gadbow and her husband Jason McMackin; nephews Willy Carter, Patrick Carter and Grady Gadbow and Grady's wife Betty Gadbow; great-nephew Wells McMackin, and by countless others who knew him as a friend, a mentor, an irrepressibly curious questioner, a laugher, a talker, an ally to the end.
His remains have been cremated and, honoring his wishes, will be scattered on the Pacific near Maui.
A celebration of his life will be held this summer, at an outside location in Missoula. Specifics will be published well in advance. Specifics will be published well in advance. Condolences and memories may be shared with the family at www.whitesittfuneralhome.com