“There is no doubt he was the most brilliant student I ever had,” retired DeKalb High teacher Joe Lo Cascio told me recently. He was referring to a 1975 DHS graduate named Richard Powers.
Harriett Kallich, another retired local teacher, had tipped me more than a year ago about Powers, whom she also considered the best student she ever encountered. He has written 10 books, won the National Book Award, was a finalist for a Pulitzer, was named one of the top five authors of the decade by Esquire magazine, and received the coveted and financially rewarding MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
But when I asked around town about the name Powers, most people could recall a Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union, but not the man named Richard.
So I sought out this famous author through his former teacher and friend Lo Cascio. In the meantime I checked out a copy of “The Echo Maker,” which won him the National Book Award, and realized what I had missed in not finding out about this brilliant writer years ago.
I set up a phone interview at his home in Champaign, just before he and his wife Jane headed for California, where he is teaching a 10-week course this semester at Stanford University.
Powers recalled his two years at DeKalb High after his parents returned from a teaching assignment in Bangkok, Thailand and had relocated to DeKalb where his sister was enrolled in college. He has fond memories of both Lo Cascio and Kallich and also had great praise for a class that was team taught by Betty Bischof and Mary Penson known as Junior Humanities, which “really opened my eyes about the possibility of adventures in literature,” as he put it.
He continued in the same class with Lo Cascio his senior year. Next, he was admitted to the University of Illinois, first majoring in physics, then switching to English, earning a bachelor’s and M.A. in that field. His first jobs were in technical writing and computer programming in Boston. One day while visiting a museum he noticed a photograph of three farmers all dressed up for a dance and from that encounter came the idea for his first novel “Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance.” To undertake this book project he returned to DeKalb and rented an apartment on North Ninth Street, writing it longhand on a canary-yellow legal pad, then asking his mother to retype it into a draft. He eventually transferred the draft to a computer, being one of the first to use this new tool for word processing due to his earlier experience as a programmer.
Lo Cascio told about the time Powers accepted an invitation to speak to his class, driving here from Champaign where he has an endowed chair and teaches creative writing. He spoke to classes for eight consecutive hours and has also returned again to visit with his former teachers at a small reunion of sorts arranged by Lo Cascio. Looking back at his high school days, the teacher also remembered that even though Powers was not a cellist he volunteered to fill a void in the cello section of the school orchestra and excelled at it.
Powers said he tries to complete a novel every two to three years and has chosen a diverse array of subjects, including some in high technology such as neuroscience and genetics. He admits being a writer “can be a lonely business staying in the back room working by yourself for so many years ... so it is very healthy and productive to come out” and mix with other people. He travels a lot and beside the years he spent in Holland and other parts of Europe he went to Berlin in 2009 to be there for the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and hopes to go to Belgium and France later this Spring, after his teaching stint at Stanford.
Asked what advice he might have for young writers, he suggested they not quit their job and just start writing, but “remember how much you can do if you just put in an hour or two a day. The regular, sustained but short intervals can produce amazing things and more effectively (at times) than trying to write like crazy for a month or two and then go back to doing something else full time. Like exercising, slow, constant, steady (intervals) are better for producing long-term results,” he commented.
He said that Web-based electronic publishing has changed the writing world. He thinks we are entering into a time where new writers can establish themselves and build a reputation through online publications, “which is a exciting new venue. It can provide new outlets for people who cannot find commercial publishers at the outset,” he added.
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Something I don’t want to miss are two excellent exhibits opening Feb. 1 in downtown DeKalb. The long-anticipated DeKalb Ag Memories exhibit assembled by former Ag employees will open at the Nehring Gallery, corner of Second and Lincoln Highway, while down the street at Bliss Beads studio, 161 E. Lincoln Highway, photographer/candy man Tom Smith will debut his photo exhibit on our vanishing agricultural surroundings.
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Ann Engstrom, a member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Sycamore, saw my column last week on Isaac Johnson and alerted me that the pews in their church were built by Johnson. There is also a stained glass window dedicated to his memory at St. Peter’s. Nice to know his handiwork has been in constant use since the 1870s.
• Barry Schrader served as editor of the Daily Chronicle from 1969-72 and later edited and wrote columns for three newspapers in San Francisco’s East Bay. He and his wife are now retired and living in DeKalb. Visit his Web site, www.dekalbcountylife.com, for an archive of columns. Reach Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.