Jürgen Eckstein was an interesting, quirky man to have had as a father-in-law, and it made him all the more special as I look back on the relatively brief time I was lucky to know him.
He passed away in late October near Corvallis, following a stroke the week before. He did not want to go on as anything less than the vibrant, creative, always-active soul that he was, and I don’t blame him one bit, though we miss him immensely.
Born in Germany and a resident of Hamburg, Cologne, Japan, Singapore, Southern California and, for nearly the past two decades, Newport on the Oregon Coast, Jürgen was going on 78 years old.
IT DOESN’T SEEM possible that he’s gone. For someone in their late 70s, he was in good shape.
When my wife Amy, our two sons and I came down from Seattle to visit he and wife Dianne this past Labor Day weekend, Jürgen and I built enormous drip castles on the beach, in the bed of a creek that we first dammed with logs and shovelfuls upon shovelfuls of sand.
Long after the rest of the family went back up to the house those warm, sunny afternoons, he and I were still on the beach, dribbling sand and water through cupped hands to form dozens of crazy towers on the structures, and then unleashing the stream to wash it all into the sea as we watched.
“There go the north towers!” “The eastern ramparts have taken a blow!” “The Kleckerburg has fallen!”
We’re all impermanent, and that’s sinking in as we come to grips with never being able to hug Jürgen or shake his hand again.
We’re left with rich memories of a loving father, father-in-law and grandfather, a smart, insightful, patient man, a sharp dresser, a world traveler, a connoisseur of good cooking, good food and good German beer – “Bitte, ein Bit” – a fan of golf and soccer, and an extremely generous person.
Above all, he was an unpretentious self-taught artist whose works, unlike our temporal sand castles those golden afternoons, will be here for a long time to come. Paintings, monumental wooden sculptures on display in his yard and in Newport’s Nye Beach, ceramic yard lamps …
Abstracts … layer upon careful layer … slathered in reds and golds … inspired by German poetry, the human condition … stippled with the impressions of intricate forms and cogged wheels … carven figures in flights of fancy and doom … works resembling utterly nothing at all … random driftwood reimagined – he was perpetually on the hunt for unusually shaped sticks, logs and stumps – extravagant Japanese shrines (one of which is regularly visited by a parade of pond frogs) and Turkish mosques in miniature … playful … thoughtful …
Half-put-together items lay on his benches and shelves and outside on the ground, and will never take their full form now that he’s gone.
Jürgen was an artist of some renown and over the years he had shows in Newport, Corvallis, Eugene, Portland, Tokyo, Korea and Germany.
I talked with him about his work multiple times as I sought its meaning and now wish I’d taken notes.
Essentially, from what I remember of our conversations in his outdoor workshop, studio, garage, on the deck overlooking the ocean, at local bars and restaurants, and during drives around town, it is up to you to attach your own meaning to his pieces.
“If you show everything, there is nothing left to see,” he told the Newport News-Times in 2009 before some of his work was put on display at the Visual Arts Center in Nye Beach.
He wanted you to think about what you were seeing, to “not take it at face value.”
With Newport friends he went to Burning Man for the first time ever in his late 60s, the second time installing one of his artworks, Wolhkenkuckucsheim, for immolation at the Nevada desert festival.
Art poured out of Jürgen – he couldn’t help himself. He built us a long, L-shaped bench around the fire pit in our patio, and rather than neatly trim off the tops of all the head boards so they were parallel and perpendicular to the other 1x6s and 2x4s, he used his reciprocating saw to create a series of waves, or eroded mountains like Oregon’s Coast Range, or billows of fog, or …
“The straight line is godless,” he told me then (and many times afterwards), a quote by one of his idols, Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
JÜRGEN ECKSTEIN’S JOURNEY through life was anything but a straight line. Building that bench, he regaled me with stories from his younger days about surviving for a month in Morocco on octopus and shellfish he caught with his own hands, decoding Warsaw Pact signals for the West German army, sleeping in ditches and fields in Italy and Greece.
Indeed, he lived in, worked in and visited dozens of countries around the world. Dianne is from Oregon and so when Jürgen retired, they bought a parcel in Newport above the ocean. After leveling its mice-ridden “beach hut,” they built an amazing, multilevel home that is one with the surrounding shore pines and spruces and salal.
I couldn’t tell you how many times Amy, the boys and I have come down from Seattle to visit – at least once a summer and winter, with the boys spending some of their school breaks there – but in hindsight it wasn’t enough.
Along with getting to know he and Dianne better, staying with them enriched our lives, allowing us to experience the Oregon Coast.
We’ve hiked, kayaked, bicycled, played tourist, attended the wooden boat show in Toledo, searched for and found so many agates, flown kites, spotted whales, watched pounding winter storms while sitting in front of the warm Kachelofen, snapped hundreds of colorful sunset photos, played games, made art, shared so many wonderful meals …
As an angler, their home has been a great base for me to fish local rivers and lakes, and crab off the public piers. Jürgen always suggested I go fish a spot on the Alsea owned by a friend of his.
He had many, many friends in the area – fellow artists, musicians, gallery owners, builders, retirees, neighbors and happy hour patrons. You couldn’t go anywhere with him without shaking a hand or two, or returning a wave.
On the eve before Amy and I got married, Jürgen had a buddy bring his goats over to their house. I’d been joking that I was going to buy a flock and rent them out to chow down on blackberries and other invasive weeds. So to test whether he should give his daughter away to an uproven shepherd, Jürgen handed me a staff, a felt hat from the Alps and told me to herd goats in front of the crowd of 30 or 40 in his living room.
I successfully got the billies and nannies to poop on one of Dianne’s carpets instead – and decided it would be wise to keep my day job.
ANOTHER MEMORABLE MOMENT from that evening was that as guests arrived at the house, they were handed old plates to smash on the walkway. Polterabend – night of noise – is a German wedding tradition to bring luck to the bride and groom, one of so many customs that Jürgen shared.
I think that that might be one of the biggest losses in his passing – the rich storehouse of all things Deutsch that went with him.
The poems, the Ostfriesland lore, the silly songs …
We will miss his voice at Christmas when we sing from Amy’s Weihnachtslieder Buch.
Amy has done her best to remember as much as she can and incorporate so much into our lives.
Teaching the boys and I German, lighting candles on the Christmas tree and the Adventkrantz on the four Sundays before Heiligabend, how to cook Bratkartoffeln, delicious desserts, making Schultüte for the boys …
Roughly speaking, our sons are about as old as I was when I lost one of my grandfathers, and I wish I could remember more of Baba. I’m encouraging the boys to fire their memories of the man they knew as Väterchen so that they will last forever.
I didn’t know I was actually German until recently, and that made having Jürgen as a father-in-law all the more serendipitous. Even though Walgamott (and its 20-odd spellings) is German, it’s not my family’s original last name, the spelling of which has origins in the British Isles.
But doing some genealogy research earlier this year I was surprised to discover that in the mid-1700s my father’s side had actually come from southern Baden-Wurtemburg and that our last name had been Anglicized in America.
In 2008, we spent two holiday weeks in Austria and Germany with Jürgen and Dianne, and I peppered him with so many questions about his home country, information which I drew upon to write and illustrate a 70-plus-page “book” about our trip.
He was like having my own personal Rick Steves as we visited Miltenberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbuhl, Straubing, Goslar and their bustling Weihnachtsmarkts, walked their walls and Marktplatze, enjoyed German food and drink – a priceless gift from my inlaws.
Traveling was important to Jürgen, both with his family and then in later years with Dianne and friends from Germany. They saw places as divergent as Turkey, Romania, the Galapagos Islands and the Phillipines.
In the Northwest, he eagerly joined many of our camping trips across Oregon and Washington, and last year joined us on a family road trip through the redwoods and down California’s oceanside Highway 1.
He just made things more enjoyable when he was around.
JÜRGEN LIVED A happy, full life, one of exploration and immersion in cultures around the world, success with family and work, and in which he was able to express himself in profoundly unique ways.
I don’t know how our dog will react the next time we come to Newport and her “Favorite Person on Earth” is no longer there to throw sticks for her on the beach, but I think she will be sad.
Like I am as I look back over 14 years and smile with tears in my eyes as I remember Jürgen Eckstein.