The former UNI professor who created an international sensation with his 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” has died. Robert James Waller was 77.
He was born in Rockford and after graduating from UNI later taught economics at the school and served six years as business school dean. His idea for the novel spurred by a trip the bridges to take photos catapulted him into international fame.
The novel was turned into a movie shot in Madison County that starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, and also a Broadway musical. The novel reached number one on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for more than three years.
The Madison County Chamber of Commerce’s website has a post that says they are “sincerely saddened” by Waller’s death. Tourism director, Teddi Yaeger says the impact of Waller’s trip there is still felt today.
“Last year alone we had over 11-thousand people come through our welcome center, and the primary reasons are still the covered bridges and the impact that the book and movie made on them,” according to Yaeger. The book is about the romance between a National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid and an Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson during Kindcaid’s assignment to shoot the bridges. Yaeger says you could never measure the total impact Wallers writing had on the area — but could simply say it put the Bridges of Madison County on the map.
“There are other places around the country that have covered bridges, what is special about the bridges here in Madison County is that emotional connection people made through that book and the film and even the musical. They come and they make their own emotional connection with them,” she says. Yaeger herself is a Seattle native who has her own bridges story from a visit 15 years ago.
“My now husband actually proposed to me on the Roseman Bridge. So, we were just visiting here and he popped the question and here we are all these years later living here in Winterset,” Yaeger says. “So, there are thousands and thousands of stories — just a quick visit out to any of the bridges and you’ll get to read those inscriptions and see those carvings, all the initials and names and hearts — those are all thousands of connections and stories that people have made with our bridges.” The book sold more then 50 million copies worldwide and along with the movie and musical, Yaeger says there are some who don’t know the story is fiction.
“We occasionally get people here in our welcome center who really believe that there was a Robert Kincaid and a Francesca Johnson. And when we have to sadly inform them that they were fictional characters, they’ve broken into tears,” Yaeger says.”So, they would like to believe that they were really here and really existed.”
Waller moved to Texas to get away from all the attention that the Bridges of Madison County brought. He donated the original manuscript from the book to UNI in 2015 and has also made donations to the school for scholarships and the Robert James Waller Professorship in Economics.
A friend of Waller’s says he died from complications of pneumonia and cancer.