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Gary Marple waded in a cold feeder stream, alone.

He and his friend, Bill Morrison, had come to the Bois Brule River in northern Wisconsin to fly-fish, an activity that occupied many long weekends across the country.

On this clear morning, they moved together through the water until they happened upon the smaller stream. Bill wanted to keep moving. But Gary believed they should stay, that they would find the river's biggest brown trout near the bank where they stood.

They agreed to separate. 

Bill did OK. He walked a couple of miles, caught about 25 small fish, released them back into river. But when he returned to the spot where they parted, he found his friend standing still.

He noticed Gary's fish, three times the size of his own. He wondered how a man could stay in one spot, so patient.

"He either Zenned out," Bill said, "or he had amazing fortitude."

Both, it turns out.

Gary Marple, 83, who died of COVID-19 in January, led a life filled with grit and deep focus. The diligence came first, forged in a poor home in Des Moines. The Zen came later — and required just as much effort.

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Born to a teenaged mother and an abusive, teenaged father, Gary began working when he was younger than 10 years old. He sold shoes, hawked rabbit pelts and delivered newspapers.

He would later tell his own children that, at times, he supported the family financially.

After graduating from Des Moines Technical High School in 1955, Gary received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Drake University, where he became president of the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity.

Next he received master's degree and a doctorate from Michigan State University. Then he was off to the Sloan School of Management, where he completed a post-doctoral fellowship. 

He landed a job as a high-priced management consultant at Arthur D. Little, where he advised beer companies, educational publishers and car manufacturers. 

Gary helped Nissan transition from the Datsun name after the brand earned a reputation for cheap manufacturing, said his youngest son, Steve Marple. And his father’s research convinced Chrysler to make its first minivan, added his oldest son, Brian Marple.

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But, Gary suffered a "mental breakdown," Brian said. He couldn't come to grips with the pains of his past, his need to prove himself to his father. Gary divorced his first wife, bought a Porsche, got married again and got divorced again. He saw his sons about once a year as they were growing up.

Gary enrolled in therapy and later, at a girlfriend's suggestion, EST training, a self-help course popular in the 1970s. He vowed to move forward from his past, to live a big life.

It was around then that he met his third wife, Meredith Rutter. She supervised the production of language arts textbooks at a publisher that paid for Gary's consultation.

She thought he was handsome, in a classic business man kind of way: white Brooks Brothers dress shirt, opal ring, brown hair parted on the left side. He asked her out two weeks later. 

He was different than the other men she knew, 10 years older, "a real grown up," she said. He hung on her words. At the end of the dinner, he told her she shouldn't work at a publishing company — she should own one.

“He would ask questions and really care about the answer,” Meredith recalled. “He wasn’t just me, me, me. He would ask about you. He cared about you. What drove you? What were your goals? Then, he would insert other ideas.”

“He would tell you, ‘You could be bigger.’”

After meeting famed New York University theater instructor Arthur Lessac, Gary founded a company to transform the way computers recognized and pronounced the English language.

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Using Lessac's notes for how to pronounce every syllable so they would carry eloquently through a room, Gary hired a staff to write computer code that would train machines to do the same. He believed computers could sound like Lessac's proteges — Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas, Faye Dunaway.

But the software required an entire desktop computer's processing power. And, when Gary's company could not find an interested customer or any more investors, executives laid off all employees in 2013. Gary unsuccessfully pursued more investors for the rest of his life.

Through it all, fly-fishing remained a special passion. He told Meredith he dreamed of moving to Montana, fishing daily, living as a hermit.

The statement confused her. Gary could barely sit still. He read for hours, raised bearded collies, flew propeller planes, skied, sailed, scuba dived and rafted in the Grand Canyon

The slow life didn't fit his hobbies or personality. 

But the river calmed him, and it served as a salve. As he reconnected with his sons, they began to take annual fishing trips to New England, New York, West Virginia and Tennessee. 

Brian said they stood in the water all day, talking about careers and spouses. They didn't talk much about childhoods or fathers. Brian felt his father's regrets, even if they weren't expressed directly.

"The thing he said to me was, essentially, that he wished we could have done more things than we did," Brian said. 

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During a trip in 2012, Brian and Steve began to worry about their father after he forgot the rules to "Oh Hell," a favorite card game. Meredith noticed the problem, too. Her husband couldn't remember where they parked at Lowe's. Then, he stopped understanding the humor in birthday cards.

Bill, his old fishing buddy, noticed that Gary occasionally forgot how to cast a line. Bill had always admired his technique and consistency. 

A doctor diagnosed Gary with vascular dementia in 2015. Four years later, the stress compromising her own health, Meredith moved Gary into a memory care center. During her visits, she noticed he lacked the sharp focus she had been used to for so many years, his eyes drifting from one object to the next in the room.

The center allowed family members to schedule supervised, outdoor visits during the pandemic. One day in September, Meredith brought with her a picture that Bill gave her. It showed Gary holding a fish. 

She gave it to a center employee, who gave it to Gary. For about five minutes, he stared at himself. 

"You saw it sort of sinking in," Meredith said. "He just kept looking at the picture. It had great meaning for him."

"He was experiencing something that was good for him."

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 700 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Staci Birmes, 50, Hawarden. Loved crafting in all forms, regularly finding fun, new things to create.

Robert Boyle, 84, Dexter. Received a Quilt of Valor for his Army service in 2017. 

Rev. Ralph Rice, 67, Sioux City. A member of the Order of the Arrow who once earned the God and Country Award. 

Joan Roepke, 83, Le Mars. A huge country music fan who met Johnny Cash multiple times.

Jessica Siegert, 40, Urbandale. Loved spoiling her family, friends and her adored cat, Diego. 

Charlene Shurtz, 68, Cedar Rapids. Enjoyed spending time with her bird, Tammy. 

Anne Stevens, 74, Stuart. Was told she would need a ventilator and feeding tube for the rest of her life in 2018. Was able to remove both in 2019.

Randy Tilley, 64, Granger. Always had a car or motorcycle project going in his driveway.

James "Choo-Choo" Whetsler, 77, Rome. Beloved by many for telling stories of his long career in the railroad industry .

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