Tim Ralston had a dream to one day publish his collection of poems. Stanzas carefully written, self-critiqued, then revised about life in rural North Dakota, with echoes of the Cold War. Couplets shared experiences from Ralston's time serving as an English language instructor in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“I would tell him, ‘Tim, put it out there,’ but he insisted on keeping the collection whole until he was done," said his wife, Mary Kay Keller Ralston. "Deep down, I knew it was never going to be done. It was never going to be right in Tim's eyes."
Tim Ralston died in 2010, just two weeks shy of the couple's 25th wedding anniversary. Within his obituary, a promise was made: "Tim's wife and daughter plan to edit and make available his last revised edition."
"After choosing some pieces to use for his funeral, we packed the writing away, completely overwhelmed," said daughter Mariah Ralston Deragon. "In the fall of 2012, we began to seriously look through Dad's writings again and started typing up the work."
Mary Kay Ralston and her daughter spent "a good part” of three to four years preparing to publish "Tributaries," a collection of poems.
“We just couldn’t do a whole bunch at once,” Mary Kay Ralston said, opening a red, spiral-reamed notebook with “Tributaries” etched on the cover. Inside are pages, upon pages, of handwritten thoughts, poems and scribbles. “It’s been a difficult process, sometimes extremely frustrating."
Most of the editing was done on any given Sunday afternoon. Mariah Ralston Deragon would type the version she thought correct, then her mother would go back through, with a magnifying glass, and compare the typed copy to the original.
“We were a good team,” Mary Kay Ralston said. “I’d spot something she missed and vice versa. It's been interesting working with Mariah, because she’s a lot like him. It’s almost like I’m working with Tim.”
Tim Ralston grew up on a farm north of Petersburg, the oldest of four children. According to Mary Kay Ralston, he was a "quintessential book worm" and wrote poetry as far back as anyone can remember. He graduated from Mayville State College before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1970.
Mary Kay Ralston remembers the moment when her husband was selected to be the English language instructor: “They instructed everyone in the room to raise their hands, which everyone did. Then they said, ‘Everyone lower your hands, except Tim Ralston.’ Tim was the only one left with his hand in the air. With his background in English, he was the likely candidate. He did that for one year and it literally affected the rest of his life.”
He received the Air Force Commendation Medal for excellence in teaching and, in 1974, received an honorable discharge. Poetry served as an outlet following the war. Tim Ralston went back to college and graduated from Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash., bringing his total majors to five.
He worked as a field inspector for the North Dakota State Tax Department in the early-1980s, when farmers were facing hard economic times. When his job required him to seize land from the farmers, he refused and resigned his position.
"He just didn't have it in him. He wasn't that kind of person," said Mary Kay Ralston, who described her husband as a jack of all trades, writing poetry whenever time and life allowed.
He loved to read books, especially nonfiction. Although he admired the works of well-known poets Robert Burns and Robert Frost, Tim Ralston often resisted the urge to flip through their books, in fear of unintentionally copying their style.
"Dad went out of his way to avoid reading poetry when writing 'Tributaries,' because he didn't want it to influence his work," Mariah Ralston Deragon said.
Mary Kay Ralston said she often marveled at her husband's writing process: “He always had to have a video going, some kind of white noise in the background. 'Gettysburg,' 'Forrest Gump,' 'JFK' … I’d have the lines of movies memorized by the time he was done.”
Tim Ralston would often recite lines of his poetry to family and friends.
"Bits and pieces of poems would just come out of him," Mary Kay Ralston said.
The mother-daughter duo finished publishing "Tributaries" last year.
"My mom and I wanted to make my dad's writing available to the public," Mariah Ralston Deragon said. "Not as a vanity project, nor simply as a tribute to a loved one. We wanted to do this because we both feel that his work is worthy of publication and should be included in the canon of Midwestern poets."
"Tim would be so happy," Mary Kay Ralston said, smiling.