Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In loving memory of Rhody C. Yule June 16, 2011

Rhody's self-portrait, 1989

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON we eulogized and buried my 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule.

I have known Rhody for less than two years, having met him quite by happenstance in the fall of 2009. While driving by his rural Faribault home, I spotted celebrity portraits hanging on his garage, stopped to photograph them and then went to his front door.

There I met this sprite of a man and his yapping dog, Jo-Jo.

With his dog shut in the kitchen because I feared being bitten, Rhody shared the story of his life with me and my husband, Randy, strangers until then. I did not hesitate to ask about the paintings hung in his cozy living room and on his garage. He did not hesitate to share that he had been painting since age 16.

Even on that first visit, I learned so much about a man who would come to mean so much to me. His wife, Shirley, had fallen and was living in Hastings. Oh, how he missed her. His only child, Paul, died in a car accident in 1977 at age 23. Oh, how he missed him.

Rhody told us about his military service, including time in Nagasaki, Japan, cleaning up after the atomic bomb. He showed us photos and paintings on that first visit and grass-woven sandals from Japan snugged inside a wooden box he had crafted.

I thought to ask, thank God, if he had ever publicly exhibited his art. He hadn’t. That became my mission, to get a gallery show for this life-long artist. His first mini-show, of his religious paintings, came in September 2010, when he was invited to Christdala Church near Millersburg. He had, many years prior, done a painting of the church. Randy and I coordinated that exhibit, then loaded the paintings into our van and set them up outside this historic country church. Rhody and I spoke briefly at that event and he assured me that, despite our nervousness, we did well.

At Christdala, I distributed mini fliers for his upcoming gallery show at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. I had applied for the exhibit on his behalf and, in January, with the assistance of family and friends and volunteers, “A Lifetime of Art: The Rhody Yule Collection” opened to a packed gallery.

In typical Rhody fashion, this man of gentle spirit and quiet humility took it all in, never once boasting, but enjoying every second of his evening. This marked a shining moment for him in his 92 years of life and I was honored to have helped him achieve this public recognition of his art.

Rhody, minutes before his gallery show opened in January 2011.

RHODY’S FUNERAL SERVICE on Wednesday, while tinged with grief, also caused us to laugh out loud at his humor. We reminded each other of his forgiving attitude, his unshakable faith, his always positive attitude.

Just days before his death,  my husband Randy and I visited one last time with Rhody. Physically his body had deteriorated to a shell of the man he had been, but his mind and spirit remained strong. We saw him on a good night.

In that last hour with our friend, we reminisced about his gallery exhibit as I, one-by-one, held up photos I had taken that evening. He was too weak to grasp the images. And then we paged through several of his photo albums with pictures of a younger Rhody, a freckle-faced Paul, a beautiful Shirley.

I thought to myself, “You will be with them soon, Rhody. Soon.”

Rhody did not fear death. Yet he wished to live, even thought he might recover. I knew better. When I mentioned Millersburg, Rhody was ready for a night out and a beer at his favorite eating establishment there. Family and friends celebrated with him last fall in Millersburg at a patriotic-themed freedom party. His idea. His celebration after overcoming a recent, temporary loss of his personal freedom.

Rhody had more living to do. I learned at his funeral that this WW II veteran wanted to travel on a Washington D.C. Honor Flight to see the war memorials. It breaks my heart that he did not live long enough for that to happen.

Me and Rhody at his opening night gallery reception.

He prayed every night for the soldiers to come home.

He was smartly dressed for burial in his military uniform, which hung loosely on the gaunt body of a man who once stood strong in service to his country.

Those honoring his memory were directed to donate to the Rice County Veterans Memorial Expansion Project.

A spray of patriotic red and white flowers adorned with a blue ribbon decorated Rhody’s carved wooden casket, a casket so appropriate for a man who crafted wooden boxes and also picture frames (for his art). Had he been physically capable, I expect Rhody may have built and carved his own casket.

But Rhody is gone now and, as the eulogist, the Rev. Ron Mixer, said, Rhody is busy painting sunrises and sunsets in heaven. He suggested we look for a signature “Y” in the clouds.

Rhody has left those of us who knew and loved him with more than his legacy as an artist and the thought that he is still painting. He has gifted each of us with his spirit of forgiveness and kindness, his humor and humility, his desire for fun, a love of life and a faith that endured challenges.

I knew Rhody such a short time. But how blessed that time has been.

We drove through nearly-torrential rain Wednesday afternoon to the rural Cannon City Cemetery to bury Rhody beside Shirley. As we gathered under the tent and next to it, sheltered by umbrellas gripped tight against the whipping wind, members of the Central Veterans Association fired an honorary salute to their brother soldier. Taps mourned. An aging veteran presented a folded American flag to Rhody’s step son in a voice choking with gratitude and emotion.

Soon the rain stopped and the sun wedged through the clouds as if Rhody was there, telling us to wipe away the tears. He would have wanted us to celebrate his life, and we did, but only if we didn’t brag about him.

Rhody's favorite painting, "The Last Supper," which he painted in honor of his beloved son Paul.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling