Science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer died this morning at his home in North Peoria. He was 91.
He had written more than 75 books and was awarded the top honors in his field. That includes the Grand Master Award for Science Fiction in 2001, an award also given to noted authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.
Long after he became an internationally recognized science fiction writer, the usually elusive Philip Jose Farmer lent his fame to a favorite project: Peoria’s public libraries.
Fans would come from around the world to attend Farmer-related events, particularly when the Lakeview branch celebrated his Grand Master Award for Science Fiction in 2001. Puzzled local library patrons might wander by to sample the cookies, occasionally asking what was causing all the fuss. Farmer would crack his tight-lipped smile but seemed unfazed by either global attention or the local lack thereof.
Farmer died at his North Peoria home Wednesday morning. He was 91.
“For all his international fame, he was one of the most humble people I ever knew,” said former Journal Star critic Jerry Klein. “He wasn’t exactly celebrated in Peoria, however, like the prophet being without honor in his own country. He had the most incredible imagination. I hope that what he is experiencing now is wonderful beyond his wildest dreams.”
Michael Croteau, webmaster for pjfarmer.com, the official Philip Jose Farmer Web site, calls Farmer “that great teacher we all wish we had.” The relationship lead Croteau to read authors from Herman Mellville to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Carl Hiassen.
“In doing a Web site about Phil for the past 12 years, I have heard from hundreds of his fans (many of whom are my best friends today),” the Atlanta-based Croteau said via e-mail. “But what is, to me, perhaps most amazing about Phil’s work is how so many different readers have ‘gotten’ so many different things from it. Phil truly wrote on many different levels. I wish I had his gift for writing, just for a minute right now, so I could express how much I will miss him.”
Although Farmer was not always recognized here, he always credited Peoria and its libraries with his love for reading and writing. His family moved to Peoria from Indiana when he was 4. Some of Farmer’s earliest memories involved the McClure Branch Library.
“That’s where I started reading widely,” he said in a 1998 interview, citing the science fiction, the boys’ adventure books and magazines. “And then when I got to the adult section, I just went ape. Literally, because I discovered the Tarzan books.”
That sly humor and love of wordplay never deserted him, despite a series of strokes and health problems during the last few years. Over more than five decades of writing, he wrote more than 75 books and countless short stories. He won science fiction’s highest honor, the Hugo Award, three times. He was nominated for five more. Yet friends and collaborators prefer to remember his generosity of spirit.
“As much as I like his work, I liked him 10 times better,” said Macomb-based author Tracy Knight. “He had this playful relationship with the universe. He was just a pleasure to be around.”
Knight said that when he was publishing some of his first work Farmer was always “incredibly generous” with his time, talent and advice.
“His easily given encouragement motivated you,” Knight said. “This towering figure believed in you.”
Knight collaborated with Farmer and several other local writers on a round-robin mystery published as a fundraiser for the Peoria Public Library. “Naked Came the Farmer” was edited and originated by Western Illinois University journalism professor Bill Knight, who is Knight’s brother. It raised several thousand dollars for the library in the late 1990s, mostly thanks to Farmer’s participation.
“He was enthused about the idea. He was creative in setting up a crazy plot,” Bill Knight said. “… He enjoyed being the rascal, the trickster. If he hadn’t, the rest of us wouldn’t have, either.”
Wanda Phillips, adult material selector at the Peoria Public Library, recalled the many events Farmer attended. Although she suspected he was “kind of a shy man,” he would always talk about the importance of the libraries here.
“The rest of the world recognized him as the master he was,” she said. “In his hometown, not so much.”
Terry Bibo can be reached at (309) 686-3189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.