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The brightest guys in my Provo High School Spanish class were Robert Wing and his best friend, Rick Walton.

Those two could think, talk and otherwise run circles around the rest of us muy, muy amateur Spanish speakers, which they did when they weren't busy engaging in a sort of divine sophomore boy silliness. They joked. They made bad puns. They probably drove Señor Jarman crazy. They definitely made me laugh. And I have always loved, loved, loved anybody or anything that can make me laugh.

Like the rest of us in that class, Rick and Robert grew up. Robert became an attorney and Rick, who actually earned a BA in Spanish, became a children's book author extraordinaire, whose titles include "Once There Was a Bull … (frog)," "So Many Bunnies," "Pig, Pigger, Piggest," "Girl and Gorilla" and my granddaughter's personal favorite, "Frankenstein"— a fabulous parody of the beloved "Madeline" books.

Not surprisingly, Rick's books showcase his lifelong love of wordplay. His words mean what they ordinarily mean, and then they mean something else, too. In "Bertie the Watchdog," for example, Bertie is a watchdog because he barks … and also because he's the size of a watch.

Classic Rick. In fact, I never did meet a person who had as much fun playing around with words as Rick did.

I often invited Rick to speak to my writing classes, and in one of them he taught my students how to write jokes for kids — the kind you find on Laffy Taffy wrappers. Here's the trick: You write them backward.

First you start with the punch line.

No, wait.

First you start with a word or a phrase. Then you riff on it and turn it into a punch line, after which you come up with a question that goes with the punch line you've just written.

For example, say you settle on the word "hippopotamus." You mess around with it for a while to see what you come up with until — voilà! — you settle on something like "hippo-pottymouth."

Now comes the part where you think up a question for your answer: "What do you call a large gray zoo animal that uses bad language? A hippo-pottymouth!"

(This wasn't Rick's joke, btw — he would have come up with something smarter. But you get the idea.)

Rick died last week after a long and difficult illness. He was far too young. And he had far too many books he still wanted to write.

The books he did write will be read and reread, of course. But I believe Rick's legacy as a mentor, a teacher and a cheerleader for other people's work will endure even longer. Many of our local children's authors including Carol Lynch Williams, Chris Crowe, Cheri Pray Earl, Ann Dee Ellis, Julie Olson, Jessica Day George, Amy Finnegan and Emily Wing Smith (who is Robert Wing's daughter) speak to Rick's influence. So do his many students, whose dreams he encouraged with his innate kindness and his vast practical knowledge of the fickle world of publishing.

In the end, the people Rick inspired will go on to inspire others who will inspire others who will inspire others. And because he adored people as much as he adored words, his circle was large. His influence will be felt by individuals who may never know his name.

As for me? I'll keep a mental snapshot of a 15-year-old boy who once made me laugh and remember him always as a fine and generous friend.

RIP, Rick Walton.

Ann Cannon can be reached at or —

Rick Walton memorial

When • Viewing, Friday, 5-8 p.m.; funeral, Saturday, 11 a.m.

Where • LDS chapel at 350 E. 2950 North, Provo