Life well lived: Sara Slayton was ‘champion’ of storytelling art form

'She was really one of the best,' says student Michael Scott
Slayton Big Smile
Sara Slayton, a pillar in the local, state and national storytelling communities, died March 12. (Facebook photo)

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Superlatives abound as friends reflect on Sara Slayton’s life and stories — especially the hundreds of stories that flowed from her lips like nectar from a flower.
The 66-year-old La Crosse woman died of lung cancer March 12 in hospice care, surrounded by family, friends and fans drawn to the award-winner storyteller’s knack for spinning yarns. It was her fifth bout with cancer, which included recovering from pancreatic cancer.
“The world lost a sparkle and a star,” said Terry Visger, an accomplished storyteller in her own right who collaborated with Slayton in events, festivals, stage plays and even the book, “Three Boomer Broads: Remembering While We Still Can.”
“She was inspiring, a champion in the storytelling art form,” said Michael Scott, who has turned the storytelling craft he honed at Slayton’s knee into his life’s work. “She was really one of the best. This is a terrible, terrible loss.
“She could tell stories that were funny, healing, scary and instructive for kids,” Scott said.
The gentle-voiced Slayton grew up in Madison and lived in La Crosse for more than 40 years — many of them as an early childhood education professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Before that, she taught in Viroqua schools for a time.
“She was an extraordinary teacher” whose stories enthralled all ages, from toddlers to senior citizens, said Visger, of rural La Crescent, Minn., an assessment that Scott echoed.
“I loved to hear her tell stories to little kids, how an unruly group of kids could be silent in just a few minutes,” said Scott, a freelance writer, actor and storyteller who took storytelling classes from Slayton at UWL.
“She taught so many teachers to tell stories to bring lessons to life,” said Scott, who also is a former substitute teacher and creative director for several radio stations.
Scott, who also incorporates storytelling as a parent educator, credits Slayton with inspiring him to create The Old School Variety Show, a popular entertainment vehicle that hearkened back to the good old days. Among Scott’s other theatrical endeavors is his popular one-man show featuring him as Mark Twain.
“She would take pauses that would scare me if I tried, Scott said. “She was brave enough to take the time, to pause, to draw the audience in.”
Slayton — a co-founder, with Phyllis Blackstone, of the Bluff Country Tale Spinners storytelling guild, chairwoman of the La Crosse Storytelling Festival and the Wisconsin State Liaison to the National Storytelling Network — received the Lucy Beck Award in 2016 from WISTGET (Wisconsin Storytellers Get-Together).
Although Slayton, whose trademark was her perpetual smile, often is described as the founder of the La Crosse Storybook Festival, Visger acknowledged that that isn’t quite on point.
“She didn’t start it on the ground floor, but once she joined, she became the ground floor,” Visger said.
Visger recalled one of her favorite Slayton yarns — a legend in which Slayton confessed to being part of a crime family. The Slayton gang would sneak down to Illinois on “oleo runs,” in defiance of an 1895 Wisconsin law against manufacturing or selling yellow-colored margarine, considered a threat to the Dairy State’s butter market.
Slayton, a niece of Mercury astronaut Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton,  would regale audiences with her rendition of her bootlegging days before the law was overturned in 1967, Visger said, laughing.
Despite that hardened criminal past, Visger said she deferred to Slayton when they had an unpleasant message for someone.
“When we had to tell someone something unfortunate, I’d say, ‘Sara, you tell them’” for her more relaxed touch, Visger recalled.

“Boomer Broads” evolved from kitchen table talks among Slayton, Visger and Lynn Wing, who now lives in Payson, Utah. The coffee klatches amounted to recollections of growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Visger said.
One thing led to another, and the book spurred four stage plays — one using the title of the book and the others, “Things Our Mothers Never Told Us,” the Christmas show “Over the Hill and Through the Woods” and “The 60s — It’s Not Just a Decade Anymore.” Since none of the three dames had stage experience, Slayton’s husband, retired English professor Paul Heckman (aka Gordon Fowler), has acting chops he used to help them hone the scripts.
Slayton, who often noted that she was “Sara without the H” even before someone asked her spelling, had a soft heart toward everyone, Visger said, adding, “Sara was even caring when sick.”
Several of Slayton’s recent Facebook messages, posted even as cancer sapped her energy as she lie in hospice, reflected that caring soul, Visger said.
Among her final entries, posted on Facebook on March 9, was one of thanks, “I may be facing some big issues but I am not alone in that battle. Thank my friends old & young, near and far, and family members and my remarkable Palliative and Hospice Care teams at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.”

Almost as if a postscript, she ended the post with the message from a Hallmark card she recently received: “I feel like I’m resting on the wings of butterflies. Just let me catch my breath dear ones and then we can run wild across the meadow.”