Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fare Thee Well, Wig Man

By Rick Morris

If you find the headline for this column to be too flippant on the subject of a man’s death, then you didn’t know Daniel Vovak. Somebody as completely over the top as him would have been bored to tears with a simple “Daniel Vovak, RIP.”

He gained a degree of fame in 2004, when he launched his “Wig Man” gimmick in a long-shot bid for the presidency. I knew him starting in 1995 – when I had the unforgettable experience of going to work for him at a startup business magazine in the Cleveland area.

We were in less-than-sporadic touch over the years, but I had the idea to invite him on our FDH LOUNGE web TV show – because I knew that he would be an unforgettable guest. Over the last year or so, I Googled him a few times, but I didn’t sense that he had a huge front-burner project that he wanted to push and I figured I’d time it for a chance when he could benefit from plugging whatever his latest and greatest idea was. But I never got the chance.

When I Googled him today, his Wikipedia page listed last Saturday as the date of his passing and online obituaries confirmed it. He was 39, claimed by Stage IV cancer in his intestines.

Daniel was the epitome of a “just spell my name right” kind of guy, so I’m sure he’d appreciate my brutal honesty even in a tribute column. I had conflicted-at-best feelings about him for quite awhile after working for him. When he hired me as his editor in 1995, there was no Google and thus pretty much no way of seeing past the Potemkin village he had erected and labeled a “publishing company.” As a kid not long out of college, struggling to get a foothold in journalism and with one unsuccessful stint as a technical writer behind me (in a job I talked my way into despite being wildly underqualified), I found myself being owed a small fortune in back pay in a company that redefined “undercapitalized.” It would have taken a saint to be 100% OK with him at that time, and I am certainly no saint.

But what I came to appreciate about him is that even though he was definitely a carny, he was a carny who meant well. He was a man of a great many dreams and schemes, but when they went south, he paid the price as well and he didn’t leave others in worse shape than he was left himself. My significantly greater exposure to the carny world since then has taught me how atypical that is. Most carnies look to screw you over and that was not Daniel’s intent.

Additionally, how could you not appreciate someone showing as much comfort in their own skin? We’re talking about a guy who had me get a tux with a Mickey Mouse pattern all over the vest when he had me be a groomsman in his wedding! And somebody who ghost-wrote columns for his magazine under the name “Rick Morrison” to try to fool unobservant people into thinking I still wrote for him after I quit! And somebody who wrote a thinly fictionalized book about people begging a candidate based exactly on himself to run for president! That’s gold!

Running for president in a goofy white wig while being constitutionally ineligible because of his age at the time (31) – for most people that would be the most outrageous feat of a lifetime. I’m not even sure that one cracked Daniel’s Top Ten. I’d have to say that it ranks below him recruiting Paula Jones for a screenplay (tragically unfinished) about Bill Clinton labeled THE BLUE DRESS.

He was a very talented guy and very smart and driven. He graduated with three degrees in only 2 ½ years from Baldwin-Wallace College, a prestigious small college in the Greater Cleveland area. Although given to indulging in colorful if goofy efforts – check out his WigAwards YouTube channel – he was capable of applying his intellect in serious ways as well, as the videos listed here attribute.

The last time we talked was back in 2005, and while he knew I was still somewhat wary about his dealings based on my sub-par experience, I’m at least glad that he could see that I had moved to the point of laughing with him rather than at him. While I’d rather that we had stayed in touch and had the great experience of having him steal the show on THE FDH LOUNGE, at least we left everything good the last time we talked, and that does count for an awful lot.

He truly was an American original and he lusted like few people I’ve ever known to live in a truly epic way and make a mark that would have the whole world talking. Whether he was running for office, writing books, promoting his film project or indulging any of his other interests, he wanted to leave a grand mark.

Well, he passes on less famous than he would have wanted, but he gets an asterisk – he only made it to 39 (it’s almost as though he had a sense this might happen for all of the stories that he packed into his life) and given that social media tools were built with the carny in mind, would you have bet against him in the long term? I wouldn’t. But he gets another distinction he truly would have cherished – being one of the most unforgettable people to everyone he ever met.

Rest in peace, Daniel, and I know you are in a better place.

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