I grew up in rural Pennsylvania on a farm. As the oldest girl in a large family I had plenty of chores. Fortunately, we grew up without a TV and all had a love of reading, and also fortunately, our teachers read aloud to us. My fourth grade teacher at Newberry Elementary, Mr. Ronald E. Riese, would read aloud a single chapter from a great book, pausing to put the story in context. He never read an entire book - he simply baited our hooks, and we'd all clamor to get out hands on the book, keeping track of who had it and who would get it next. One day he read the whitewashing chapter from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I was mesmerized. He explained why the treasures Tom was offered for the privilege for whitewashing had value: "...a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash." He explained candied orange peel as the candy of the times to 35 kids who were well acquainted with Hershey bars. I got ahold of the book and couldn't stop reading. I read it over and over. (I still read it over and over.) Finally, when I went to jr. high school, I paid a visit to the library during my first week and asked the librarian if she'd ever heard of this author, Mark Twain, who had written Tom Sawyer. She laughed and gave me a book she was about to discard - a collection of Twain's stories that included Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawer, Detective, Notes of an Idle Excursion, The Stolen White Elephant, and Encounter with an Interviewer (still one of my favorites). Eventually I stumbled upon Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and began the process of unlearning many preconceived notions I had picked up in my childhood. And reading Twain's autobiography told all: it was all real! It had all happened to him and his friends in a town called Hannibal, Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi River. Like my heroes, Sam Clemens and Huck Finn, I dropped out of school. But I always wanted to be a teacher (thanks to people like Mr. Riese and the other inspiring teachers I had known), so in my thirties I tackled college. It took me two years and nine months to earn my BA (while working 60 hours a week and raising a family - but work ethic was something I'd learned on the farm and in those elementary classrooms). I even earned a PhD at the University of Iowa in two years (while working three jobs) by applying the same work ethic. I was offered a position at my alma mater, Stetson University, where I taught and earned tenure, but in the meantime, I had been to Twain's Hannibal many, many times. It tugged at me like the moon on the tides. I volunteered at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in the summer of 2006 to teach in their first ever teacher workshops. And I knew I belonged there. Quincy University, across the river, offered me a position, so I gave up a tenured spot at my alma mater, moved to Hannibal, taught at QU, and began volunteering at the museum in my spare time. A year later the director took a position elsewhere, and I found myself in the ridiculously serendipitous position of holding two of the best jobs a person could have: teaching future teachers at QU and directing operations at the Twain museum.
Since then I have written and co-produced "Mark Twain: Words & Music," a double-CD that tells Twain's life in spoken word and song. It features Jimmy Buffett as Huck Finn, Garrison Keillor as the narrator, and Clint Eastwood as Twain. Singers inlcude Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, and others, including the producer, Carl Jackson, a childhood friend I had not seen in decades. Carl and I lost touch when he went to work for Glen Campbell, but I had followed his career and knew if such a project could be made, he would be the one to produce it. We dedicated the CD to our parents, who taught us to love good music, and to Mr. Riese, who opened the door to my lifelong passion for Sam Clemens (aka: Mark Twain). There have been too many projects to count (animated videos with my students, articles, books, etc.), but the CD feels like I have made a little mark myself and provided something that will help people reacquaint themselves with Twain and get in touch with their inner-Huckleberry.
I also recently collaborated on a book, Down the Mississippi: A Modern-day Huck on America's River Road, with Neal Moore, a CNN iReporter who canoed the entire river collecting positive stories along the way. Twain's voice chimes in throughout as something of a commentary on Neal's experiences, which include the dance of the Ojibwe (who named the river) to meeting inmates at "The Farm" in Angola, LA, a former plantation that now serves as the nation's largest maximum security prison. Twain had something to say on every subject, and some things never change. Yes, I have more exciting Twain projects in the making, and I will approach all with love and respect and a commitment to work hard and do my best. I try to tell my preservice teachers at Quincy University how Mr. Riese changed my life because he introduced his students to so much great literature and provided background knowledge we lacked - and then he inspired us to think and learn for ourselves. We knew how to solve problems and be creative. We knew how to make something from nothing. We never gave up. He touched so many lives, and even now when I go to high school reunions and find classmates from Newberry Elementary, they all agree that he was the best teacher ever. Thank you, Mr. Riese.
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