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Dylan expert John Bushey dies at 56

John Bushey, host of KUMD's "Highway 61 Revisited," gestures during a live show at the studios back in 2015. Bushey, a Dylan expert-musician-teacher, died Thursday surrounded by close friends and family. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

On Bob Dylan's 76th birthday, John Bushey sat, gaunt and dark-eyed, wrapped in winter wear on the steps of the musician's childhood home in Duluth's Central Hillside.

It was mid-week of the annual Dylan Fest and Bushey, a premiere Dylanophile, said he hoped to live to the end of the 2017 festival. Then, there he was a few days later, bustling around the annual singer-songwriter competition at Clyde Iron Works.

That's the way it has gone with his longtime battle against Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Bushey, host of KUMD-FM's "Highway 61 Revisited" for the past 26 years, died Thursday surrounded by close friends and family. The Duluth-born educator-magician-escape artist-Dylanhead-Houdini expert was 56. Bushey had been in remission two or three times in the past decade, according to his younger brother, and he was even briefly cancer-free.

"He wanted to live," said Jim Bushey. "He would set goals. 'I'm going to make it to the 2014 Dylan Fest. I'm going to make it to my niece's wedding.' I always said he kept pulling miracles out of his ass."

Bushey was working on his pet projects up until the end, according to friends. Reached recently by phone, he was in the middle of prep for the 2018 Dylan Fest and excited about the inclusion of a piece of large-scale art that incorporated Dylan's lyrics.

Zane Bail, a longtime friend, neighbor and Bushey's cat-sitter, who is on the Dylan Fest committee, said Bushey had already designed badges for the event's annual singer-songwriter competition and arranged for his friend Bill Pagel's Dylan memorabilia to again be on display at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.

"He was working on the festival until the end," Bail said. "He was giving what he could."

The two had plans to meet this weekend.

Bushey graduated from Duluth East High School. In college, he studied geology and had learned to scuba dive, according to Jim Bushey, but opted to live forever in Duluth despite the lack of job opportunities for scuba diving geologists.

He taught in the Duluth Public School district until his compromised immune system made that an impossibility.

John Bushey is best known locally for his Dylan fandom and subsequent radio show, which aired rain-or-shine for 26 years — long enough to get his studio on the University of Minnesota Duluth's campus named for him. He played Dylan tunes, including obscure tracks and rare Dylan interviews. Bookcases in his home were packed tightly with CDs — some unmarked. But he knew what was on them.

"He was such a fan of Bob Dylan and he just wanted everyone else to be that, too," said Maija Jenson, program director. "He did whatever he could to connect people with Bob. He had found those so fantastic and enlightening. Those were the things he wanted to share.

"He was kind of magic."

He was known to bring friends and fans on-air. Susan Beasy Latto, who went to high school with Bob Dylan, said she recorded two hours of material with Bushey.

"He was the most kind, wonderful man," she said. "He always had this big, strong media voice, even as he was very ill."

Bushey's final show aired this past Saturday, Jenson said. This week the station will honor him with his favorite Dylan tunes. "Highway 61 Revisited" is expected to go on. Bushey, of course, had plans in motion.

Bushey saw Dylan perform live more than two-dozen times — most recently a three-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis about five years ago. He had tickets to see Dylan's show at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul this past October, but he was ultimately unable to make the trip.

In addition to Dylan, Bushey was known internationally for his Harry Houdini memorabilia, including pitch books and the jail lock from a cell the magician escaped from, rare handcuffs, display cases and safes and copies of his own research on specific topics, like mitten-style handcuffs from the 1800s.

When friends threw a fundraiser for Bushey in 2015, it was the rare time that he was on the receiving end. Typically, it was Bushey performing magic shows at this kind of an event.

"He really lived," said Bail. "He was so passionate about so many things and he had so many good friends. He was just one of those people. We all thought we were his best friend."

In an April 2015 interview, Bushey told the News Tribune that modern cancer treatment isn't the same stuff our grandparents talked about.

"Ninety percent is your attitude," he said. "I accepted that (years) ago. Whatever happens, happens."

He approached his disease like he approached everything that interested him: research, recording, graphs, journals and self-advocating.

"That's just me," he said at the time. "It's just who I am."

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