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Author Ray Bradbury, a Waukegan native, dies at 91

Updated: July 8, 2012 6:48PM

Ray Bradbury, whose eloquent mastery of fantasy and science fiction transformed his native Waukegan from a factory town to a place of mystery and magic, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

He was one of the nation’s most admired and prolific writers. His literary classics include Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. He won the National Medal of Arts; an Emmy award; the French medal of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and an Academy Award nomination for writing the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film, “Moby Dick.”

Mr. Bradbury also helped design the Spaceship Earth attraction at Epcot Center and the Orbitron space ride at Euro Disney in France.

He even had an asteroid named after him: 9766 Bradbury. A crater on the moon was called “Dandelion Crater” in honor of Dandelion Wine, his influential young adult novel set in the fictional “Green Town” ­— which was really his childhood home of Waukegan.

He wrote an estimated 600 short stories and 70 books, said his biographer, Sam Weller, a professor at Columbia College Chicago.

Mr. Bradbury never forgot Waukegan, where he lived until he was 13, when the Great Depression prompted his family’s move to California. Fans recognize the woodsy feel of a Midwestern town in many of his works.

“He never abandoned what he would call his ‘root system,’ ” Weller said. “That’s his Midwestern upbringing, his sense of nostalgia, his good-natured sensibilities. There’s a folksiness in the man. He was a prairie writer like Frank Lloyd Wright was a prairie architect.”

Mr. Bradbury always remained in touch with friends in Waukegan, where a park is named in his honor. And he joined a fight in the 1990s to save Waukegan’s Carnegie Library, where he spent many happy hours as a boy with a big imagination. It’s where he set the pivotal showdown between good and evil in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“Waukegan had everything that was good about a small town,” he told the Sun-Times in a 1991 interview. “And there’s that wonderful thing about the trees touching in the middle of the street.”

He liked to roam Waukegan’s ravines, where city lots give way to wooded hollows. He evoked the wanderings in Dandelion Wine, saying: “It was a twilight that only the Midwest sees, between the lake and the prairie, embraced by the green gathering shadows of the ravine.”

And he spoke of his childhood wonder at the universe in a filmed interview on the NEA website. “On the lawn at night when I was 12 years old, I looked at the planet Mars and said ‘Take me home!’ And the planet Mars took me home, and I never came back!”

Mr. Bradbury’s boisterous enthusiasm for life left some Waukeganites stunned to hear he was really gone. They recalled a thrilling childhood encounter he described with a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico: “He put his sword of electricity on my head and said, ‘Live Forever!’ ’’

After Mr. Electrico’s entreaty to never die, Mr. Bradbury told the Sun-Times in 2006, “My secret soul had to find a way to do this. . . .I got a toy typewriter and I began to write. I’ve written every single day since.”

“In some ways, he was still a kid,” said a Waukegan friend, Wayne Munn, noting Mr. Bradbury never learned to drive and kept every piece of his fan mail, all the way back to the 1940s.

His eloquence re-shaped the fantasy-sci-fi genre, which he helped propel from corny serials to adventures of the mind. “Without his influence, we would still be reading Buck Rogers,” said Waukegan Mayor Robert G. Sabonjian.

Weller recalled accompanying Mr. Bradbury to Comic-Con in San Diego. “It was like a prophet moving through a sea of followers,” Weller said. “Grown men dropped to their knees and bowed to him.”

He seemed prescient in Fahrenheit 451, his 1953 masterwork on censorship and social isolation, said Elizabeth Stearns, community services chief for the Waukegan Library. “There were thumb-scans to get in the house. There were small ‘seashells’ that nestled in peoples’ ears, and they couldn’t hear each other ­— and now we wear iPods. And, there was reality TV. The TVs were as big as walls.”

He had a memory to rival Proust, Stearns said. After feeling a spiderweb break on his face as a boy, “he described that in great detail 30 years later. The spiderweb was in Dandelion Wine. ” Sue Harrington recalled a special evening when Mr. Bradbury visited her Waukegan home as she and her artist husband, the late Jim Harrington, worked with the writer to preserve the Carnegie Library. “The night was just magical. Ray would just tell us stories about Waukegan, and his childhood, and his memories of the old Waukegan Library, and the ravines.” A key influence on Mr. Bradbury was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which he bought at the United Cigar Store on Waukegan’s Genesee Street. “He said he stole the structure of that book for The Martian Chronicles,” Weller said.

In 2003, Mr. Bradbury lost Marguerite, his wife of 57 years. He is survived by his daughters Susan Nixon, Ramona Ostergren, Bettina Karapetian, and Alexandra Bradbury, as well as eight grandchildren.

Sabonjian said he plans to organize a Ray Bradbury Festival in the writer’s honor, and that he will ask the College of Lake County to consider naming its Lakeshore Campus the “Bradbury” campus. And he wants to install a statue in the writer’s honor, “just like we did for [the late Waukegan comedian] Jack Benny, but bigger.”

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