Passion, obsession and a child’s heart drove Bruce “Duke” Seifried to become an excellent jazz musician, a pioneering designer of gaming figures and a driving force behind the phenomenon called Dungeons & Dragons.
The Janesville man, who was “Uncle Duke” to countless gamers and game designers, died Sept. 29 at age 83.
“He thought being a kid was a good thing to be, and you should encourage that,” said Annette Baker, his wife of 26 years.
Baker, his second wife, poured out details of his life in a phone interview Saturday. She talked about his role in developing the war-gaming subculture.
She told of his two visits to J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”
The visits helped him create a miniature model of one of Tolkien’s creations, the Helm’s Deep fortress.
Seifried’s version was said to be the best representation. He thought the portrayal of the fortress in the “Lord of the Rings” movies was way off, Baker said.
For all his interest in history, Seifried knew well that his creations did not reflect the pain and anguish of a real battlefield, he told a Gazette reporter in 2000.
“There is a huge difference between being on your belly in the mud than having pretty soldiers that you set up, knock down, then set up again,” he said.
Seifried knew about real battle. He was a captain of U.S. Army infantry in Korea in the late 1950s and a mercenary officer in the Congo in the late ’60s and early ’70s, according to the 2000 Gazette story.
Seifried got interested in miniatures early on. His father collected tin soldiers, but Seifried was not allowed to touch them.
“That kind of inspired him to make his own,” Baker said.
Over many years, he became a master at designing and sculpting miniature people, buildings and terrain that could be admired as displays or played as a game. One of his last efforts included several thousand figurines.
Some called these war games, but he preferred the term “extravaganzas.”
Seifried was known for his deep research in preparing battlefield scenes from Alexander the Great to Napoleon to the Zulus of southern Africa.
He developed paints and painting techniques, Baker said, and he could focus on the intricate tasks needed to complete the elaborate scenes.
“Duke was a true Renaissance man in every sense of the word,” Baker said.
“He said he didn’t know how anyone could ever accomplish anything unless they were a little obsessive-compulsive,” she added.
He was also a great showman, setting up these scenes at gaming conventions with lights, background music and a microphone so he could narrate, said Mark Anderson, a longtime friend and fellow creator of war game sets.
Seifried joined Anderson’s weekly war-gaming get-togethers for 25 years.
“He had a lot of stories that’s for sure. The veracity of all of them I’m not so sure of. But he was a good guy, and our guys cared a lot for him,” Anderson said.
“I think of a guy that’s not only a craftsman but a gentle soul with a good heart.”
It’s impossible to chronicle all the businesses he founded or skills he perfected with seeming ease.
“He had talents in so many areas and in most cases had not studied for them,” Baker said. “He said it was like they were just there.”
Seifried worked with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, creators of Dungeons & Dragons, and worked as an executive at their company, TSR.
Baker recalled her husband taking Joyce Brothers—the pre-eminent TV psychologist of the day—to talk shows so she could counter the charge that D&D was dangerous for young minds.
Seifried was key to broadening the audience for D&D by getting it placed in toy stores at a time when some were likening the game to devil worship, said Matt Forbeck, a Beloit-based game designer.
Seifried was not good at everything. Baker said she would drive them to gaming conventions, because he was so distracted by stories and game rules he was developing that he couldn’t concentrate on the road.
“He could be very emotional,” Baker recalled. “When we would be at a movie, during the really sad part, I would look at him and say, ‘Are your eyes raining, too?’ And very often they were.”
People would say she and her husband were very different, she said, but he would react to that by saying, “What makes her cry makes me cry, and what makes her laugh makes me laugh.”
He always had time for the young people who approached him at the conventions, she said.
“He believed very strongly that the men in the hobby needed to do more to encourage young people, and I’ve received numerous emails (since his death), and they talk about the concepts he taught them, about critical and logical thinking,” Baker said.
He was equally passionate about teaching guitar, insisting that his young students delve deeply into music theory, she said.
Seifried’s passions drove him right up to the end. He gave his last advanced-guitar lesson days before he died, Baker said. And he finished the last of his “extravaganzas” for a customer in Monaco in his final months.
He had customers around the globe, but the man in Monaco has 14 of these elaborate scenes and is talking about opening a museum, Baker said.
He also continued a longtime carpet-cleaning business until he could no longer do it, just a few years ago.
Seifried donated his body to the UW-Madison Medical School, particularly to research pulmonary fibrosis, the condition that killed him.
He believed that working in smoky clubs as a young musician contributed to the disease, although doctors could not pinpoint a cause, Baker said.
He fought the good fight against the lung condition, living more than nine years after doctors told him he had two to go, she said.
One of Seifried’s bands, Jazz for Jesus, will play at the memorial service, set for at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hope Lutheran Church in Milton.