Merle Hayden was not in attendance at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh air show in July. For the last four decades, he towed his antique RV there to tout the achievements of aviator Alfred Lawson. But although he was not physically present, he still made an appearance of sorts at the show, as the subject of a documentary screened at the event.
The film, Manlife, premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in June. Hayden, 96, attended a showing in spite of his late-stage cancer. He died a week later.
Director Ryan Sarnowski, a Milwaukee filmmaker, and producer Susan Kerns, a West Allis resident who teaches film in Chicago, have been accepted to screen the film at the Milwaukee Film Festival, which runs September 28 through October 12. The documentary delves into Hayden’s life and enduring obsession with Lawson.
Lawson achieved global fame for attempting to found the world’s first commercial airline. In 1919, his prototype passenger plane, the Lawson L-2, carried some two dozen people from Milwaukee to New York. But his second plane, the Midnight Liner, crashed on its maiden voyage.
After that, Lawson turned to health and economics, eventually creating a personal philosophy, called Lawsonomy, which espoused vegetarianism, public control of money, reincarnation and a host of other ideals – from the mundane to the outlandish.
Though many (millions, the film says) followed the teachings of Lawsonomy at its peak in the 1930s and 40s, few are familiar with it today. Many Wisconsinites, however, have seen a sign on farmland Lawson’s group once owned in Sturtevant, along I-94 near Racine, advertising the University of Lawsonomy and an admonition to “Study Natural Law.”
Sarnowski saw it when he was stopped for speeding nearby, eventually connected with Hayden and followed him to the EAA in 2009. He and Kerns spent eight years chronicling Hayden’s devotion to Lawson.
Manlife takes its title from one of Lawson’s books; he reportedly wrote over 50, and 20 are still in print. But the film’s title is also a play on words about the measure of a man’s life.
Sarnowski thought he’d make a “creative, meditative film about what it would be like to be the last person to believe” in something. “But that was not how Merle saw his life. He was still on a crusade. He wasn’t reflective. He was active.”
Hayden joined the group as a teenager and spent his life talking about Lawson’s accomplishments to anyone who’d listen. Sarnowski and co-producer Terry Caddell’s initial conversation with him lasted four hours.
Hayden preserved books, newspapers, photos, films and recordings, stockpiling them in a barn and in the cramped Racine apartment he shared near the end of his life with Betty Kasch. High school sweethearts, Hayden and Kasch were reunited in their 80s, after Hayden’s wife, Margie, died. Betty is the film’s loving but skeptical non-believer.
Over the years, Hayden had some success recruiting new followers – some estimate that a few hundred people currently subscribe to a non-orthodox version of Lawsonomy, picking and choosing what to believe. They are “a much younger generation … that Merle brought up and raised,” said Sarnowski.
Now, with the release of the documentary, that number may grow. Nothing would have pleased Merle Hayden more. ◆
Images courtesy of the filmmakers