“He was one my dearest friends and father-figures and I don’t know what I’m gonna do w/o him now.” That’s how Mickey Melchiondo — aka Dean Ween, half of the team behind the beloved but no-longer-active band known as Ween — characterized his feelings about the passing of Jim Woolsey. But who was Jim Woolsey? How that question’s answered will, of course, depend on who’s being asked. Melchiondo describes Woolsey’s role as “assistant to the band,” noting that he “helped us establish our newsletter and mailing lists in the era before email.” Woolsey’s obituary, which ran on August 31, gives more of the story, referring to Woolsey’s work as the operator of a recording studio — and then mentioning that, “In the 1980’s, he began traveling to Dharamsala, India to work with the Tibetan Library.”
This McCall’s story from 1993 tells us more about Woolsey and his role in what turns out to be a quiet but very sweet episode of dharma-and-pop-culture collision:
“For a decade, Woolsey has worked with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmshala, India, to put the Tibetan language on computer. The free-lance computer whiz has compiled a source book of Tibetan literature and also has worked to create a Tibetan computer keyboard for the exiles from that ancient Asian kingdom. In the course of his work, he’s met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political leader since placed under house arrest in that country.
“‘If the Tibetan language isn’t put on computers — because of the fact that there are fewer than 1,000 Tibetan typewriters in the world and they’re more expensive than computers –the Tibetan language might not be saved from being put on the shelf with all those other dusty, musty languages of the scholars,'” said Woolsey. ‘This is its only hope.’
“Woolsey’s work with the Tibetan Buddhist government-in-exile in India began with an interest in Tibetan literature.
“Formerly a technician with various rock’n’roll groups in the 1970s, he would read anything he could lay his hands on concerning Tibet […] Woolsey returned to India several times at the invitation of the Tibetans. He had discovered in the United States that no one was working on computerizing the Tibetan language with much interest. By 1985, he was acting as the consultant to the library in developing the language on computer.”
Which brings us to the present day. Melchiondo, for his part, decided to write a letter to the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala, “all the while assuming that someone had informed them of Jim Woolsey’s passing. Turns out that this was not the case,” he writes. The Library’s director responded:
“We are very shocked to learn about the passing away of Jim. He was a very good friend of Tibetan people and specially of the LTWA. He was a very good person and did not care much about worldly fames and glory. He lived a down to earth life with kind heart. What matters for the next life or lives is how well we have lived our life. As such I am confident that he will have good rebirth and all of us here at LTWA pray for his wellbeing for many lives.”
Woolsey may no longer be among us, but surely his work lives on, thanks to all he’s done to preserve Tibetan literature. And then, there’s the fact that his messages have been preserved online by fans like Melchiondo. You can read a slew of Woolsey’s emails — there’s a nice, time-capsule feel here — online here.
(Big thanks to Mickey Melchiondo and Steve Silberman for their assistance with this story.)