A Renaissance man is one who embraces all knowledge and develops his own capacities as fully as possible. My brother, Neil (Nip) Waldemar Hummasti, was a Renaissance man. He was a scholar, a teacher, an athlete, a devotee of the arts, a theologian and a writer. In a previous life, he may well have been fixture at the Algonquin Round Table. Alas, he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer before his aspirations as a writer were fully realized. He left behind three novels, numerous short stories and essays, and some full-length, nonfiction pieces. Several of his short stories were published in magazines and literary reviews and he came very close to having one of the novels published by a major publishing house. Some of his later works were never sent out for consideration due to his illness and then death.
Neil was born in Astoria, Oregon in 1949 and grew up on a family farm in Svensen, near Astoria. He went to a small, country school, where he was a good student and a star, left-handed pitcher on the high school baseball team. At his high school graduation, he was awarded the prestigious “Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete” trophy; he was all three. He enjoyed many outdoor activities but baseball was his great love. He rarely missed an opportunity to get up a game at the field near his home. As a tyke he started in Midget League and continued on to Little League, Babe Ruth League (chosen for the All Star Team, which won the regional championship), American Legion baseball, right through college (where he was a starting pitcher) and on into semi-pro ball.
He won a baseball scholarship to Linfield College but decided instead to major in history at Portland State University. It was there that he developed an interest in literature and writing. A professor nominated him for a university-wide competition to find the most talented writer at Portland State. The professor of his Advanced Fiction Writing class was Tom Burnam, author of The Dictionary of Misinformation. Mr. Burnam felt strongly enough about Neil’s writing that he offered him a referral to his own New York agent whenever Neil completed a full-length work of fiction. Unfortunately, Mr. Burnam died before Neil finished his first novel. He signed Neil’s copy of The Dictionary of Misinformation, “To Neil, with the best wishes (to one of his favorite students) of the old professor, and author, Tom Burnam.” Neil graduated with honors from PSU with degrees in both history and English. He also participated in over-seas programs at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Oxford University in Oxford, England.
Although his college advisor tried to persuade him to go into college teaching, he became a high school language arts teacher working primarily with 11th and 12th grade students in college prep classes. He taught English, literature, creative writing, Shakespeare, film, and drama (and, of course, coached baseball). He was highly respected by students and colleagues. Upon his death I found letters from a number of his former students thanking him for his dedication to them and expressing how significantly and positively he had impacted their lives. He taught for 25 years in Oregon public schools and received a number of honors and awards, including a “Teacher of the Year” award and an entry in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.
Neil was well read in the classics. He particularly loved Shakespeare, Dante, the 19th century Russian authors (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc.), Flannery O’Connor, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. He also was a student of theology and wrote several scholarly works on the subject, as well a novel involving Christians in the time of Nero. And he enjoyed vintage films, from Casablanca to the Marx Brothers.
His grandparents, on both sides of the family, immigrated from Finland. Neil valued his Finnish heritage and he was a life-long member of the Finnish Brotherhood Lodge in Astoria. He visited Finland (and what was then the Soviet Union) in the 80’s with his aunt (upon whom he based a leading character in his novel, Forty Ways To Square a Circle). He loved traveling. He traveled throughout Europe and made visits to Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt. He especially loved revisiting Italy and Britain. His comic novel, I See London, I See France, is a testament to that passion.
Health issues forced him to early retirement from teaching. It also fell upon him at that time to be the primary caretaker of his elderly aunt who was enduring the brutal metamorphosis of dementia. Although he had done some writing prior to retiring, it was then that he discovered his true calling, a calling he first faintly heard back in his college days with Professor Burnam.
Cancer silenced his literary voice before it had reached full volume in October of 2011. He’s buried in Svensen Pioneer Cemetery, a small, quaint country graveyard near his childhood home. Engraved on his tombstone is a quotation he chose from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
"There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."