CEDAR FALLS – Best-selling “The Bridges of Madison County” author Robert James Waller, formerly of Cedar Falls, has died.
Waller, 77, who resided in Fredericksburg, Texas, died Thursday at his home from complications of pneumonia and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, according to his longtime friend Scott Cawelti of Cedar Falls.
Funeral arrangements, as yet, have not been announced.
Waller was born Aug. 1, 1939, in Rockford. He was married to Linda Bow Waller. He is survived by one daughter, Rachel, from a previous marriage.
“It’s a sad thing … but he said he’d had a helluva life — more than he ever expected to happen to chicken farmer’s son from Rockford, Iowa,” said Cawelti. “He’s sort of iconic for Iowa. He really made it big — 50 million books sold worldwide, a great movie with major stars, a Broadway show. That’s a whole new level of making it big. Robert became a touchstone for people.”
The author taught economics and decision theory at the University of Northern Iowa for 22 years and served six years as business school dean. He graduated from UNI in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree, and his master’s degree in 1968.
“Bridges” has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and is published in 40 languages. It spent more than three years on the New York Times bestsellers list. In 2014, a Tony award-winning Broadway musical opened in New York City.
Prior to “Bridges,” Waller wrote three non-fiction books and a collection of personal essays. “Bridges” is the bittersweet story of National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid and his brief, but memorable affair with an Iowa farmwife.
In 2015, Waller donated the original manuscript of “Bridges” to his alma mater. The manuscript contains the author’s personal notes and annotations and was originally published in 1992. It is housed in the Rod Library’s special collections and university archives at UNI.
Waller’s literary success will be the focus at the launch of a year-long Cedar Falls Authors Festival, with a program May 4 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. Cawelti and Waller sang together for many years, and Cawelti will perform songs and readings from Waller. The festival, which was organized months prior to Waller's death, will continue through May 2018 and recognize other famous Cedar Falls authors.
Waller published additional bestsellers, including “Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend,” in 1993, followed by “Border Music” and “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze.” "A Thousand County Roads — An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County" was published in 2002, followed by “High Plains Tango.”
He returned to non-fiction writing in 2011, writing and publishing “The Summer Nights Never End ... Until They Do: Life, Liberty & the Lure of the Short-Run,” which succeeded in merging his logical and creative sides.
“It's certainly the best piece of work I've ever done, and I'm having fun with it. It's been a walloping good time. I'm good at research and documentation and obsessive to the point of being insufferable, and I fully admit to that,” Waller told The Courier in an interview about the book.
Waller also became something of a happy recluse, exploring a range of interests from fly fishing to photography, as well as teaching himself to play jazz guitar.
“He was a man who was happy in his own skin,” notes Rosemary Beach of Cedar Falls. She and her husband, Bob, have known Waller for many years. “We grew to know Bob and Scott (Cawelti) playing their guitars. I think Bob was content with his life and doing his thing, and once he’d done it, he just wanted to disappear from view, and that’s what he did.”