June 13 2012 12:00 AM

Gay Okemos couple shares a lifetime of collecting with MSU and the community


Mark Ritzenhein and Stephen Wilensky love to recall the afternoon in the early 1990s when they crossed the Yarlung River in a wooden boat, heading into Tibet, listening to the clicking of unsoftened yak cheese.

That’s a long way from the split-level home in Okemos they have shared as a couple for 30 years.

“Lansing is a lovely place to live, as long as you can get away for some excitement,” Wilensky said, in a sly growl.

Back to the yak cheese story: Heading for an obscure monastery near Lhasa, the couple traveled with two Chinese guards toting rifles in bamboo-woven cases, a Tibetan lama and two peasant ladies chewing yak cheese.

“It has the consistency of marble and takes about an hour to soften up in your mouth,” Wilensky explained of the cheese. “They click it on their teeth. I felt like I was in a Charles Lamb novel.”

“You’re kind of anoxic (oxygen-deprived) at 12,000 feet, so it was a bit purple-hazy,” Ritzenhein said.

“It was a wonderful day,” Wilensky said, beaming back at his partner.

Ritzenhein and Wilensky have traveled together to every continent, including Antarctica, where they slid down a snowy hill in the bright sunshine of Paradise Bay, drawing looks from curious penguins. They have visited every U.S. state and Canadian province.

“And territory,” Wilensky added.

Duly noted. These men are in a mood to sum up, to set the record straight.

After 30 years of life together, illness is forcing them to sort a lot of things out. Ritzenhein has terminal cancer. An uninvited breeze of transition is stirring their house full of art, books and memories.

This year, the couple donated about 2,000 gay-themed books to Michigan State University, along with memorabilia and cash endowments for both the library and the MSU Museum, with more endowments to come.

“For the past 30 years, in my personal life, I’ve tried to be as out as possible, and not to hide, to remind people that not everybody is a cookie-cutter human being,” Ritzenhein said.

No cookie cutter this side of Alpha Centauri would fit Ritzenhein. He’s a restorer of pianofortes and fortepianos, fervent advocate of native plant gardening, poet, textile artist, and — get out your Scrabble tiles — avid vexillologist. That means he designs and analyzes flags.

He doesn’t dabble in any of these things, either. Get him started on what’s wrong with, say, suburban lawn culture or the Lansing city seal, and we wouldn’t have room for the main topic of this story, which is books. 

“I read gay fiction aloud in the car while we drive our long distances all over,” Ritzenhein said. “It keeps us both happy.” 

Wilensky, a radiologist and native of East Lansing, began collecting gay literature in San Francisco in the 1970s. He’s the more phlegmatic and stolid of the pair, looking on like a patient Buddha while his partner fires sparks in all directions. Together, the couple has amassed a staggering cache of gay-themed books, photographs and ephemera chronicling the inner lives and collective struggles of gay men in America. Small kitchen-sink press editions, mass-market books, academic tomes, cartoons: You name it, they collected it.

“It’s all over the map,” MSU librarian Sharon Ladenson said. “They collected literature. They collected areas that span into humanities, sociology, psychology, history, military history, cookery. There’s quite a bit of autobiography and biography.”

If you’re wondering what a gay cookbook is like, key it up in MSU’s card catalog in a few weeks, when it’ll all be catalogued and ready.

They’re also giving the MSU Museum a cache of ephemera, including gay-themed T-shirts, a large photo collection and American flags Ritzenhein carried in three national gay rights marches. The museum will use some of these artifacts in a January 2013 exhibit, and all of it will be available to researchers.

But the mother lode of gay books is the meat of their endowment.

“We may go for five or 10 years without getting a collection we’re really interested or happy to have,” library spokeswoman Ellen James said. Even then, the library usually has to pay for it. “It’s especially wonderful when people are willing to share with us for free something that means so much to them.”

“A great deal of what we have, they don’t have,” Wilensky said. “A lot of it will be on open shelves.”

That means a lot to the donors. Some of the hotter stuff, like the photo books, will be in Special Collections, but most of it will be out there for anyone to use.

“We’re part of the community and it should be too,” Ritzenhein said.

Back in the 1980s, Ritzenhein, a Saginaw native who came to MSU for a degree in music, took offense when a Lansing councilwoman — he doesn’t recall her name — suggested that every “queer” in Lansing belonged in San Francisco.

“I thought, ‘You go to San Francisco,’” he said. “I decided that this is my home and my community, and I have every right to be part of it and to stay here.” 

Legacy talk is hard, whether the need to sort things out is urgent or not. As we talked in their Okemos home, Wilensky ceded the spotlight to his opinionated partner, facing him instead of me and frequently passing his sleeve across his eyes.

Death is a heavy note in any domestic chord, but all it took to fire up their natural repartee was to ask them about their favorite books.

“Well, first of all,” Ritzenhein sprang in, but suddenly noticed that Wilensky had also begun to speak.

“I had —, “ Wilensky began.

“Oh, do you want to answer?”

“Well, you’ve been chattering the whole time,” Wilensky growled lovingly.

Wilensky said he’s proud to have owned seven autographed books from Allen Ginsberg. The beat poet signed them at the long-defunct Jocundry’s Bookstore in East Lansing, just after picking up the young man who stood in line in front of Wilensky.

“What are you doing after the signing?” Wilensky recalled the young man asking Ginsberg.

“Why, going out with you, of course,” Ginsberg answered.

“The young guy stood next to the table until it was over,” Wilensky said. Story over. Wilensky turned to Ritzenhein.

“Now you can answer,” came the gravelly voice.

Ritzenhein’s proudest contribution to the endowment is a comprehensive collection of gay poets. (He didn’t think much of Ginsberg at first, but converted wholeheartedly after hearing him recite in person.) “I tried to collect gay poetry books because they’re liable to disappear completely,” Ritzenhein said. 

Ritzenhein met Wilensky at a gay bar in Okemos in 1982. “It was called The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, or something appropriately strange,” Ritzenhein recalled. “It was sort of like the bar in ‘Star Wars,’ an odd assortment of characters. Steve was there.” (He let the inference of oddness waft over on its own.) “Afterwards, we went out on a date. He made the mistake of asking me out twice, and he’s kind of stuck with me since then.”

“That was almost 30 years ago,” Wilensky marveled.

The first gay bookstore Wilensky discovered was the Walt Whitman in San Francisco. The owner gave him a compilation listing of gay books, in which he patiently checked off each purchase.  As his passion for collecting grew, Wilensky would go to San Francisco or New York and ship home boxes of books at a time.

“I’m sure we made several of those bookstores’ monthly profit margin over the years,” Ritzenhein added. 

Part of the collection’s value is its timing. The Ritzenhein-Wilensky endowment chronicles the rise of gay literature from its raw, semi-undergound beginnings to its inexorable mainstreaming in the broader culture and academic world. No trip to the Golden Gate required.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, gay writers were very aware that they had created an entire body of literature almost instantly, and they were very proud of that,” Ritzenhein said. “A lot of that literature is very worthy.”

Deanna Hurlbert, assistant director of MSU’s LGBT Resource Center, said MSU’s libraries are already noted for the breadth and depth of their collections on “progressive social issues,” especially sexuality and gender-related material.

She and many others at MSU would like to see the university start up a degree program on sexual orientation and gender identity. If that happens, Hurlbert said, the Ritzenhein-Wilensky endowment could be an anchor for that program and draw significant scholars.

Nobody knows how many seeds will grow from any gift, but the donors easily summed up their basic intent.

“We want to solidify the LGBT and queer presence at MSU and in the community,” Ritzenhein said. “Not many people have the means and impulse to do that.”