Roy Wagner Has Died

Roy Wagner, Invention of Culture

Roy Wagner

Roy Wagner

October 2, 1938 – September 10, 2018. Esteemed Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia for 44 years.

And my friend – who meant more to me than he’ll ever know.

If you’ve stumbled across this article, you may be looking for some context around Roy Wagner’s career and his academic achievements. That’s not what this is, however, there are some relevant links included below.

This is an ode to my friend. It’s not a sonnet, but hopefully it’s something Roy would have enjoyed.

See the Invisible

Roy Wagner was open to experiences and people in a way I’ve never encountered in another human. He went on spirit journeys, could see auras, and searched for Sasquatch. These were all things I easily accepted about Roy, because by the time I learned all this about him, he had already seen the most invisible thing of all: me.

I met Roy my first semester at UVA, which was also my third year of college (non-UVA folks may call this a “Junior”). I was in his Fantasy and Social Values course and it was heaven. Learn anthropological theory by applying it to classic SciFi literature? Yes, please!

I loved every lecture. When it came time to write my first paper for him, I had an enormous amount of fun.

For my second paper, however, I needed to ask for an extension. So at the end of a lecture, while the ~150 students were slowly shuffling out of the giant auditorium, I approached the stage to make my request.  He asked for my name so he could mark the extension in his book.

When I told him my name, he snapped his book closed and stared at me.

Roy: “YOU’RE Meghan Shaw?”

Me, quiet and confused: “Y-yes?”

Roy: “You’re THE Meghan Shaw?” He seemed very excited. “You’re a writer! You’re a REAL writer!”

He shouted to the rest of the auditorium. “Hey everyone! This is Meghan Shaw, and she is a heck of a writer!” Over a hundred other students stopped in their tracks and stared at me.

I was stunned – partially because I hate being the center of attention, but mostly out of amazement. Roy read only one of my papers and he could see me the way I so desperately wanted to be seen.

Roy Wagner thought I was a writer.

When Roy looked at someone, he really saw them. And it’s impossible to be invisible when you’re truly seen.

Accept the Inexplicable

You Have Cat to be Kitten Me

(I hope Roy would have enjoyed the overused cat pun…)

The first time Roy Wagner saved my life was when I was still his student. I developed intestinal issues (a slightly more delicate way of saying, “Stuff went in, but nothing came out”) which landed me in the emergency room several times. Doctors could not determine the cause, which left me in severe pain for months. The pain interfered with school, work – even my ability to walk upright! You get the idea – it was horrible.

One day, despite my excruciating…discomfort, I dragged myself up the infamously treacherous Brooks Hall stairs to Roy’s 3rd floor office.

I tried to make light of it. “Roy, I’m full of shit and it just might kill me!”

Roy, dead serious. “That’s not funny. This may actually kill you.” He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, squinted his eyes and and stared at me silently for a few moments. “If you don’t get a cat immediately, and imprint with it, you will die.”

Pause there for a second – let’s back up for a little context. A few months earlier, my cat died. She was my childhood pet and, naturally, I was sad. We also had two other cats in the house, one of which had decided I was pretty great.

Okay…continuing on…

“But Roy, I still have cats.”

Roy shook his head adamantly. “It’s not the same. You need a kitten. I’m serious, Meghan! If you don’t get a kitten, you will die. Promise me you’ll get a kitten right away.” (Roy was one of the very few people allowed to call me Meghan.)

I can’t say I believed Roy at that moment, but he was so insistent. And nothing else had worked to ease the pain. And I was desperate.

So I promised Roy I would get a kitten in order to save my own life.

Two days later, a friend brought me a kitten. Less than a week after that, my intestinal problems dissipated and I was the picture of health.

The River of Dreams

Anyone who took the Castaneda class with Roy Wagner knew that he was fascinated by lucid dreaming and dream walking. Anyone who spent any time  at all with Roy knew that if he was fascinated by something, he was ALL IN.

So, dear reader, you can understand my alarm when a little over two years ago, I woke up one morning having dreamed that Roy was in the hospital.

In the first part of my dream, Roy was unconscious and unlikely to leave the hospital. In the second part of my dream, he had miraculously recovered! For some reason, I was the person supposed to pick him up from the hospital and drive him home. But when I arrived, he was stubbornly reluctant to leave because he really enjoyed the hospital food.

It was an odd dream that seemed to have come out of nowhere.

I did feel a little bit foolish as I picked up my phone to call him, but my previous experiences with Roy taught me to just roll with it.

I was so relieved when he answered his office phone!

But I still had to ask… I told him about my dream and that I was worried he was dream walking from a hospital bed.

He laughed. “I don’t remember dream walking last night, but I’m not sure how else you got the message. The thing is, Meghan, I was in the hospital two weeks ago for heart problems. And the hospital pudding was quite good! I miss it!”

From there, the conversation moved on to entirely unrelated topics, as if the experience of friends communicating through dreams was normal and expected. Who knows? For Roy, maybe it was.

Constant Regard

After I left UVA and Charlottesville, I still loosely kept in touch with Roy. I’d call him a couple times a year and we’d catch up. I’d tell him about my very typical life changes: new jobs, different boyfriends, that time I had a dog, moving to new cities, getting married… And Roy would tell me all about whatever fascinating topic he was currently exploring, his trip to find Sasquatch, and trippy sweat lodges. Our conversations always made me so happy.

Sometimes I called Roy because I was facing something difficult, or because I felt lost and overwhelmed. On these occasions, I never told him about my struggles – we would just have one of our usual chats. And when we’d hang up, I’d feel like a new person. I could face anything – because a giant like Roy Wagner believed in me. THE Roy Wagner could still see me.


This world is far less intriguing without Roy’s inquisitive and ebullient soul. I grieve his absence, and I am so grateful that I got to know him at all. I just wish I could tell him what he meant to me and how much I’ll miss him.

Other Roy Wagner Links

As promised…

And just for fun…

  • An angry sonnet I sent to Roy a few years ago. It’s barely a sonnet, but it got the job done.

One Reply to “Roy Wagner Has Died”

  1. Love it! You’ve captured Roy so well. Beautiful tribute.

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