Ride is over for ‘Iowa Blackie’; wandering poet dies at age 62

Richard “Iowa Blackie” Gage, an Iowa hobo who indulged his wanderlust in American railroad boxcars and penned a handful of well-regarded poetry books, died Thursday at his New Hampton home. He was 62.

After his mother threw away a cherished toy, Gage hopped his first train in 1963 at age 14, riding 40 miles from his native New Hampton to Oelwein in a car loaded with iron ore. He would have ridden longer, but railroad security collared him and sent him back home with his father.

“My dad took it in pretty good humor,” Gage said in 2004. “But the look my mother gave me. … We walked in, and she looked up at me. I could tell she had been crying.”

Gage apologized for worrying his mother but eventually made it back to the rails almost every summer. A group of fellow hoboes dubbed him Iowa Blackie in the 1970s.

His first big trip took him to Spokane, Wash., and back in 1984. A year later, Gage said, he made it to all but six states west of the Mississippi River.

Gage took notes during his travels and in 1988 wrote a five-page poem about his first train ride. He gave it away to passers-by and asked only that they copy it and give it to others if they liked his writing.

In 1989, a volunteer at an Iowa City shelter thought so much of Gage’s poetry that he took Gage to a University of Iowa computer lab and helped him typeset a collection of poetry and prose.

Gage authored a handful of poetry books, and his work was included in the Garrison Keillor-endorsed anthology “One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hoboes.”

His big blue eyes, bushy gray beard and coveralls with pockets stuffed were a staple at the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt. He was elected Hobo King in 1993.

“Iowa Blackie has been around as long as I can remember,” said Linda Hughes, president of the Hobo Foundation. “At the conventions, he would spend his time away from the action on a city park bench. He would always be writing in his little diary.”

Gage was not destitute, though his appearance, Hughes admitted, was “a little rough.”

The story he always told – and separating fact from myth is always a little tricky with a poet hobo – “was that he inherited a little money from his father and had to do something with the money, so he invested in a house in New Hampton,” Hughes said.

He and a friend in New Hampton, Mick Gage, used to joke they were brothers. When police found Richard Gage dead Thursday, they sought out Mick Gage because they thought it was true. It wasn’t, Mick Gage said. It was just a tall tale.

Police had to track down an obituary for Richard Gage’s mother, Gertrude Gage, who died in December in Laguna Vista, Texas. There they learned that the poet was survived by an aunt, Joan Utz of Des Moines; and two brothers, Martin Gage of Clear Lake and Larry Gage of Laguna Vista.

Funeral arrangements were pending at Hugeback & Chenoweth Funeral Home in New Hampton.

Richard Gage didn’t care much for winter. He summed up his restless soul in a short poem, “Of Late Winter,” and perhaps aided his eulogy writer:

The sun moved higher in the sky

Daylight growing ever longer

The weather which then magnified

My urge to leave stronger

At long last winter turned to spring

And then the snow was melting fast

Eventually to warm wind bring

The dreariness and cold had passed.

A personal note,we met Iowa Blackie on the streets of Iowa in the 80s.

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