Gail Gygax flipped open the blue binder she had been carrying under her arm. On its cover was a shield emblazoned with the words "Gygax Memorial." She was all business, pleasant but driven, barely allowing me time thank her for meeting with me. She turned through the pages until she landed on an elaborate illustration. "OK, there," she said, pointing at penciled concept art of a statue of Gary Gygax, her late husband and the co-creator of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Actually, in the illustration, a bust of Gary stood behind a castle, as well as a dragon, a crest, swords and a big mountain.
Also, she continued, there would be computer chips embedded in this memorial allowing visitors to learn more about Gary and encouraging fans to play a game of D&D right there at the base. I was fuzzy on how computer chips might work with the statue or how this would encourage a live game of D&D, but before I could ask she went on: Also, at the top of the staircase leading to the castle there would be a replica of D&D's famous 20-sided die, and at the bottom of the stairs is a cave where fans could deposit their own D-20s.
You know, in tribute.
Clever, I said. But what about people leaving trash? Or an animal making a home in the cave? Both were good points, she agreed, then plowed forward: Also, the statue would be ringed with bricks, purchased by fans. Also, because the statue would become a tourist attraction, she was thinking of opening a Gygax-themed store downtown. Also, because the Gygax Memorial Fund has certified 501(c)(3) charity status, she wanted to set up an educational branch of the organization to promote game-play as a classroom tool.
Ambitious, I said, adding that perhaps if it were slightly less ambitious, this statue would be built by now.
She looked at me as if I were a class-level-one halfling, standing before a wizard.
"Well, I'm ambitious," she said finally. "If you don't dream for things to happen, things will not happen."
Yes. Since 2009, Gail has been trying to make a Gary Gygax memorial happen in Lake Geneva.
And it should.
Or, at least, some form of a memorial to Gygax, whose influence on contemporary culture is vast and underrated, should happen. As David Ewalt, an editor at Forbes magazine and author of the 2013 history "Of Dice and Men," said, Dungeons & Dragons took the raw materials of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and revitalized the fantasy genre; it influenced the first generation of video game developers, introducing the now-familiar concept of game characters who could grow, improve, "level up"; Gygax's Gen Con, a role-playing game convention founded in 1968, helped popularize geek conventions (and continues to, decades later).
But most important, Ewalt said, "What Gary did was help give birth to a creative class: filmmakers, writers, TV showrunners. A generation now making art — from the 'Game of Thrones' guys to whomever — learned how to tell a story, and the power of narrative, from first being D&D players in the 1970s and '80s.
"So yes, I think there will be a monument to Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva eventually," he said. "Gary changed many lives. But maybe it's taken some time for Lake Geneva itself to understand who Gary was?"
If a monument is to be built, now is the perfect time: Gary Gygax published the first Dungeons & Dragons game 40 years ago this past winter, from his home in Lake Geneva. This summer, Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro, which owns D&D and also publishes the popular Magic: The Gathering card game) plans to release a highly anticipated, streamlined new edition of D&D.
And, starting Thursday, the sixth annual Gary Con, a tabletop-gaming convention founded by Gary Gygax's six children, will be held at the Geneva Ridge Resort.
Indeed, in a way, this is the story of two memorials: There's Gail's, which has raised more than $200,000 but remains stubbornly unrealized. And Gary Con, created as a kind of "living memorial to my father," said Luke Gygax, Gary Con's main organizer, a 43-year-old career major in the California Army National Guard.
On an afternoon this week, helping set up tables in the basement meeting halls of the Ridge Resort, he was disciplined, can-do, even running back to his hotel room to make sure he was clean-shaven before having his picture taken.
"When my father passed away in 2008 (at 69), I came back to Lake Geneva, where I grew up, to help Gail put together the funeral, which was stressful," he said. "We held a small memorial at a funeral home, but I also thought a lot of people would want to remember my dad informally. So we got a spot at the American Legion hall in town, which was where my father had held one of the first Gen Cons, and about 100 fans showed up.
"We showed episodes of the old 'Dungeons & Dragons' cartoon, the episode of 'Futurama' (in which Gary was a guest star, voicing a Gary Gygax character who protects a space portal with Al Gore). We served food and set up a podium where people would share stories about him and thank him, and it was so cathartic and comforting that people said to me that we should do it every year, like a kind of Gary Con."
Luke Gygax made Gary Con a priority, so much so that he returned from a service tour of Iraq two days before the 2011 convention. This year, he expects 700 fans to visit over Gary Con's four days.
But Gail Gygax is not expected to attend. That first year, she was involved. Gary Con supported building a statue in a local park. "Year two, she wanted to be the sole person in charge (of plans). OK, fine," Luke said. "We'll be a living memorial."
It's no secret that the Gygax children and Gail, their stepmother, do not get along.
Gail married Gary in 1987. She told me that he left her the commercial rights to his name and likeness (but will not fight the existence of Gary Con). She said she had no idea why Luke is no longer involved in her plans, and she doesn't want to be part of Gary Con. Which, for both sides, is too bad.
For one thing, the animosity means Gail became the sole catalyst for a Gary Gygax statue being built in Lake Geneva, a town of 7,600. Considering the red tape and fundraising involved, she's done well: By 2012, she had taken in $129,162, mainly from fans leaving donations on the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund website; by the end of 2013, thanks to a donation from Wizards of the Coast (which the company declined to comment on), that figure topped $200,000.
As for a design, she's working with local architects, as well as artist Larry Elmore (who created the iconic early D&D box art and provided the concept sketch for Gail Gygax's memorial). But by her own admission, Gail also spent the first two years of the fund's existence arguing with the park commission about placement: She said Gary figured someone would want to build a memorial, "so I spent years arguing for Library Park, where he went to read after he skipped school. He wanted to be in a park by the lake."
And the city of Lake Geneva?
Said Doug Skates, president of the board of park commissioners: "If Gail came along and said she had the funding and a designer and was ready to go, I don't know why it couldn't happen soon." Said Dennis Jordan, city administrator: "I think a statue is a great idea, and that residents would be surprised how many came just to see it." But Library Park is a nonstarter, they agreed; they don't want such a pretty, clear view of Lake Geneva crowded with memorials. So they proposed putting the statue in a park across the street from the lake, albeit a somewhat marshy site. Gail agreed, reluctantly. Skates said: "We have people who approach the city with plans, know to streamline, move things along. Gail's approach has been halting …"
Besides, he added, any Gygax statue would still need City Council approval, "and it never ceases to amaze me what some people can be offended by."
For instance, D&D, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, acquired a somewhat silly reputation as being a gateway drug into juvenile delinquency, even Satan worship. As recently as 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (based in Chicago, where Gygax was born) upheld a ban in a Wisconsin prison that prohibited prisoners from playing D&D. Prison officials argued playing D&D could "foster an inmate's obsession with escaping from the real-life correctional environment."
Which is a nod to the game's (spot-on) reputation for being addicting and to its general mechanics. For the uninitiated, D&D does not require a traditional game board, only the storytelling abilities of players, who assume characters and embark on (i.e., talk through) adventures. It's open-ended, without winners or losers.
Consider that sketchy, nerdy reputation — and consider the small-town politics that appear at the margins of this tale (Skates said bad feelings do linger in Lake Geneva over Gary Gygax moving most of his company to California in the '80s) — and it's not hard to see why a Gygax memorial, even if it ever gets completed, might be installed begrudgingly.
Indeed, if Gail and Luke agree on anything, it's that Lake Geneva doesn't see Gary's importance.
Which may be true: Ask around about other famous, significant residents, and you're as likely to hear about Chicagoans who keep a second or third home here (the Wrigleys have been a presence for years) as people who grew up there, such as Gary Gygax. Not to mention, one of the most prominent statues on Lake Geneva is of a fictional character: chinless, pencil-nosed Andy Gump, hero of "The Gumps," a long-defunct (Tribune-born) newspaper comic whose creator, Sidney Smith, kept an estate on Lake Geneva.
Gail Gygax doesn't love that Gary's memorial will have worse placement than a cartoon character; she told me she asked the city to promise it would never build another memorial in Library Park (which the city declined to promise, of course). But she figures she has raised almost enough to get a model built and the project completed. Perhaps in another year or two.
Luke Gygax, who also hates the city's proposed location for the statue, said the statue has taken too long to build. If he was involved, he said, he would have launched a Kickstarter campaign ages ago.
"But do I want it built?" he said. "I would love to see that …" He smirked. "Do I sound like a politician?"
For now, the only piece of Lake Geneva that acknowledges Gary Gygax is a small inscribed brick near a downtown fountain: "In loving memory of E. Gary Gygax. Creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Donated by his family, friends and fans." It's not enough. But perhaps a statue away from all the mainstream tourist traffic isn't bad either. I told Gail there was something poetic about a Gary Gygax memorial placed off-center, outside the everyday, on the margins. After all, I said, that is where D&D found several generations of its fans.
She disagreed, politely.
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