I wrote this appreciation of Roger Brunelle at the request of Dave Moore in England, all-around Kerouac wiseman and founder of a Kerouac Group on Facebook with thousands of members worldwide.–PM
Au Revoir, Roger Brunelle (1934-2021)
By Paul Marion
Au revoir, Roger. Let’s hope we do see you again in some other cosmic zone or time-travel hotel. Across Lowell in Massachusetts, New England, in America, and within countries afar, Canada, France, the UK, Italy, and others, people heard the news that Roger Brunelle has passed and felt sad.
Born twelve years after John L. Kerouac, Roger was the last linguistic link, informed by deep knowledge of Kerouac’s writing, to the author’s generation in his hometown. Roger’s special understanding of the French portion of Kerouac’s soul and mind gave him an advantage in presenting the essence of the author to curious pilgrims or well-read scholars. Formally educated in languages, Roger honored the distinct French shaped by the Quebec immigrants and their descendants making their way in a new nation. He was the last witness from his time to testify. Now, we take what we learned from him and carry it forward, spreading the word to new readers.
Kerouac had something to say about geniuses, born or made. The difference was about invention. Roger looked around his city in the mid-1980s and decided it was time to take Kerouac to the streets. He joined other local activists in creating an organization to promote the author. He named the organization: Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! He wanted a celebratory quality in the remembering.
Roger invented the guided tour to Kerouac places in Lowell, and through decades led hundreds of walking and bus tours for thousands of people of all ages. He researched carefully in designing his tours. What one got on a tour was enthusiasm. Spiritual inspiration. He had the facts and the stories. Passages and paragraphs carefully matched to the streets, houses, churches, riverside, and open spaces. Roger was deeply spiritual while being thoroughly of the Earth. He understood the innate spirituality of Jack Kerouac. He conveyed it.
And Roger loved his city, for all its small glories and stubborn imperfections. He was not going to let Lowell get away with not claiming Kerouac. He preached the word in his own earthy way. He might surprise his tour members by reading from Visions of Gerard in the pulpit of St Louis de France church of Kerouac’s boyhood parish after getting the key from the pastor. Or he might take them into the back room of the Rainbow Café on Cabot Street with its makeshift shrine to Jack behind the pool table.
Roger Brunelle stood up for French Canadian-American culture in Lowell, the ocean in which the SS Kerouac sailed. He was a memory worker as one woman in Little Canada called herself when interviewed about the songs she knew from her youth in the city. He was a cultural conservationist, preserving what was known about his people. But he was a thoroughly modern man, freed from the ropes of superstition and cold heartedness. He shared the Beat vibe.
As a teacher he encouraged countless students in his French and Latin classes (48 years). Roman history was living history for Roger. He held a master’s degree in Linguistics from Middlebury College in Vermont. He studied French literature in Paris. He served in the US Army and had tattoos long before body art went mass-culture. He was happy to meet a breakfast pal for beans, toast, and coffee at Vic’s diner near his house close to Beaver Brook.
We will miss him, but his wife, Alyce, and children and grand-kids will miss him more. I’ll miss him as a friend and co-conspirator. The international Kerouac community lost a passionate member on February 10. All hail, Roger. We are grateful for all the good you brought to this life.