NewsPub Notes

Dennis Waters Lived Life to the Fullest, Even When It Got Tough

Dennis Waters, back in the day.

Dennis Waters died last week, just before the death of longtime Athens guitarist-sublime Davis Causey and the news that President Jimmy Carter had entered hospice. Athens mourns the loss of our talented native son Davis, and the world mourns Georgia’s Carter. Though he was not a public figure, Dennis is mourned by his friends and family who loved him.

Dennis wasn’t a musician, but he was a lifelong, ardent fan of music, notably Mozart, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and Five Eight, just to name a few of the artists included in his famous mixtapes through the years. Dennis should probably be posthumously arrested for all the music he shared through his countless, patient hours of constructing CDs for the enjoyment of those who shared his musical tastes.

Like Jimmy Carter, Dennis was a submariner, a four-year underwater service he chose rather than the alternative of a year in the jungles of Vietnam. The Navy benefitted from Dennis’ organizational abilities, and its discipline helped him focus the wild energy that drove him. As promised, he saw the world, part of it unwillingly, as when their sub lost its navigation and they had to surface just off the coast of Russia in order to take a fix on the stars. He survived that and other scrapes, but the years on nuclear submarines took their toll later, in the development of a couple of lymphomas, one of which morphed eventually into amyloidosis, the rare disease of rogue proteins that attacks bodily organs. About 15 years ago, as a last-ditch maneuver against the invasion, Dennis underwent stem-cell replacement, barely making it through the operation but gaining a new lease on life until the amyloidosis came back this year and finally got him.

Dennis grew up in McDuffie County, outside Thomson, and was devoted to his parents, his sisters and their husbands, and the family’s many cousins, nieces and nephews with whom he remained in close communication throughout his life. He is survived by them and by his son Michael, who has been his steadfast support during his last, long illness.

Dennis graduated from UGA and started out as a sales manager for manufactured homes, spent some time behind the counters of convenience stores, married, divorced and began a career of teaching history at an inner-city Atlanta high school from which he finally retired, with a little help from his military credits and a host of unused personal leave days. He was devoted to his students, if not to the high school administration. He started and coached a championship debate team. He finagled the resources to create a student-run, in-school television station that reported on school events and happenings and gave hands-on training to those who participated.

After his retirement, Dennis came back to Athens and took care of his old friend Chuck Searcy’s Five Points home, since Chuck has lived in Hanoi for the last several decades, heading up Project Renew, which has the mission of eradicating the plague of unexploded bombs left over from the war. Yes, it’s that Five Points house—with the large, lighted purple peace sign in the front yard (and the old Waffle House sign in Dennis’ basement lair). Dennis’ friend and neighbor, the multitalented Will Wilson, kept him going with home repairs, grocery shopping, meals, doctor visits and anything else needed, as Dennis’ strength lessened.

Despite his conservative, small-town beginnings, Dennis’ life experiences turned him into an ardent, outspoken political liberal, and he passionately followed politics and always made it a point to vote in person on election day, to get the full flavor of participating in the democracy he   helped defend.

Dennis, like John Kennedy, was “an idealist without illusions.” He took life as it came and did what he needed to do. The harder it got, the more he dug in. He took responsibility for his health, and he managed his medical treatment, realizing that nobody had a larger stake in it than he did. When the death sentence came, he faced it with clear-eyed equanimity—sorry he could not have more, happy for what he had and for those who shared the good times and the bad.

Dennis Waters was not a national hero nor even a local one. He was just a guy always ready to party, with crazy energy to match his crazy hair, the nemesis of stuffed shirts. He teased, challenged, goaded and hectored you to stand up and do the right thing, whether you were an old friend or a new acquaintance, and to let go and live. He showed us how: He plunged into life and kept his head above water until it washed him ashore, exhausted but triumphant.