August Wilson: 1945-2005
updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
From the start, says Angela Bassett, who starred in his 1984 breakthrough Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, "you knew this man had a calling." The son of a German-born baker, Frederick Kittel, and an African-American housekeeper, Daisy Wilson, August left school in ninth grade and taught himself in the library of Pittsburgh's Hill district, later the setting for most of his plays. An initial inspiration was Bessie Smith. "All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," he told PEOPLE in 1996. This year brought the final chapter in his series, Radio Golf, to the stage. In May, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. "I've lived a blessed life," Wilson, 60, said. "I'm ready." The father of two (his widow is his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, 47) died in Seattle on Oct. 2. "Folks say that he wrote of the black experience," says Whoopi Goldberg. "He didn't. He wrote of the human condition."