The Road from Rhodes

By Elizabeth H. Brandon ′06


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Ann Barr Weems ′56

A writer who lives in St. Louis, Ann Barr Weems graduated from Rhodes with a major in English. As she was interested in writing since she was 12 years old, one of Weems’ favorite classes during college was the creative writing course taught by Memphis journalist Lydel Sims. With regard to her academic experience and her impression of the professors, she states, “The professors had a personal interest in teaching, and I felt as though they wanted me to ‘get it.’ It was friendship. They expected great things and were sincerely interested in our learning.” Others who influenced her include English professors Dan Ross (to whom she later dedicated her second book), John Benish and John Quincy Wolf and history professor John Henry Davis. They knew of her interest in writing and encouraged her to cultivate her skill.

“All of my English professors brought different styles and personalities to the overall experience, making it positive,” she says. She first remembers Wolf, who read to his class Appalachian poetry and songs he had recorded. Weems describes such a hands-on experience as an “eye-opener to the rhythm of words, especially poetry.” Before Christmas break one year, instead of an exam, Sims instructed his students to submit pieces to the Southern Literary Festival. Weems, who did not go, was amazed that she won first place for a poem and short story.

She has since dedicated her life to family, faith and writing. After moving to Monmouth, IL, Weems joined a women’s creative writing group that met monthly. While beginning to compose material that she wanted to see published, she carefully examined potential markets to which she wished to send her work. During the ’70s, she was published in various denominational magazines, and in 1980, her first book, Reaching for Rainbows: Resources for Creative Worship, was published.

Weems has written seven books and is working on the next with the working title of It’s About Jesus. Using the biblical words and deeds of Jesus and the biblical names with which we address Jesus, such as Lord of All, Bread of Life, Prince of Peace, Weems writes poetry questioning the words and deeds of the church today. Currently the keynote speaker for various denominational events, Weems also leads workshops on worship and creative writing.

Edie Claire (Edie Vincent Swihart) ′87

For Edie Vincent Swihart, who planned to become a veterinarian in the ’80s, going to a liberal arts school seemed out of the question. Now known to her fans as author “Edie Claire,” she recalls, “the veterinary schools all had strict requirements about specific animal science classes that prospective students had to take—courses that were only available at agricultural colleges.” However, Rhodes proved supportive of her decision to pursue a liberal arts education in light of her career ambitions. Allowed leaves of absence to take outside classes, she still graduated on time and got into vet school.

A biology major, Swihart loved the “small size of classes and accessibility of the faculty” at Rhodes. When she was struggling in a physics class, she made an appointment with her professor out of frustration, uncertain of how he might be able to help. She states, “After about five minutes, he magically diagnosed my problem, explaining to me that it was an error in approach many students fell into.” Swihart’s performance in the class skyrocketed after this meeting, and she remains appreciative of the personal attention she received as a student.

Attending veterinary school at Auburn, Swihart married and moved to Pittsburgh, where she joined a small animal practice. After having two children, she left her practice and began doing scientific and medical writing. She comments, “I had never thought of myself as a writer or taken writing seriously as a career option until I discovered the American Medical Writers Association.” As she gained experience as a technical writer, she began to consider the prospect of fiction writing, and her first novel Never Buried (mystery) was published in 1999. She has written seven books thus far and has at least two more in the making; her two most recent works include Long Time Coming and Meant to Be, both blends of mystery and romance.

Now a mother of three, Swihart plans to shift focus in her writing, to compose books that dig deeper emotionally. Wishing to produce more wholesome books despite the popularity of graphic novels in the commercial fiction market, she is currently working on a book about a “soccer mom’s” quest for a more meaningful life. Whether this work proves to be successful or not, Swihart will continue to write:
“As my author friend Judy Fitzwater says, ‘No one really chooses whether or not to be a writer. You just are.’”

Richard Jennings ′66

Richard Jennings spent 30 years in the advertising business, working as a creative director responsible for one of the largest companies in the country: Wal-Mart. Though he had a successful business career, he concluded his tour of duty in 1999 to begin writing children’s books. He couldn’t stand to wait any longer to do what he really loved. His passion for writing goes back to his days spent at Rhodes, where he worked on the literary magazine and was a columnist for the newspaper. He recalls having a column, “I abused it, wrote anything to get a flap. It was the ’60s, and we were all spreading our wings.”

As a double major in English and sociology at Rhodes, Jennings comments on the support that he received in cultivating his writing: “It was not just having someone expose me to things that were worth reading but having someone who was supportive of the things I had written, no matter how meager they may have seemed at the time.” Jennings entered the job market directly after college, feeling lucky for having a steady income. In the business world, he confirms that the only thing that matters in business is money, no matter what form it might take, and for evident reasons such reality may be daunting. However, he maintains that his education at Rhodes helped to prepare him for such a harsh environment; he has carried that foundation throughout his career. With regard to his college experience he states, “I cared about words and art and creating things and so do these guys (Rhodes).” Evidently that passion has followed Jennings to this day, as seen in his current career.

Now residing in Leawood, KS, he concentrates on writing books directed toward the “middle reader,” children aged 10-13, maintaining that writing in the voice of a child allows him “freedom to be naïve.” Having written five books for that age group, Jennings will continue to specialize in this category. Writing from such a particular point of view, he tries to get inside and understand the feelings and experiences of these children. In Scribble, Jennings illustrates a child’s handling of loss when his best friend dies from illness. The main character inherits the dog Scribble from his deceased friend and works through the grief. When asked if there exists a common thread in his work, Jennings states, “I think all children are alienated to a greater or lesser degree. It’s an adult world. Whether in or outside of their age group, there’s something every child has that makes him/her feel different, something that makes him feel not fully accepted in a world that has not fully accepted him.”

Jennings has also been published in magazines such as Kansas City, but his future plans are based around writing books. He believes the experience is more meaningful.

Ruth Duck ′69

A major in Christian education and minor in sociology, Ruth Duck remembers possibly the most important conversation she has had in her life in terms of career. It was with Fred Neal, then the chair of the religion department at Rhodes, who encouraged her to go to seminary. At Chicago Theological Seminary (the same school Neal attended), Duck received a master of divinity and went on to become a pastor. She currently works as professor of worship at Garrett Theological Seminary.

While in college Duck was “one of those who had not heard of women becoming pastors,” and initially considered becoming a teacher or missionary. Coming from a relatively conservative background, Duck discusses her experience with Bible courses at Rhodes: “I was interested in as well as challenged by learning modern methods of interpreting Scripture. The faculty was good at taking all of my questions and being patient.” Professors who influenced her include Richard Batey and Milton Brown.

With regard to teaching strategy, Frances Pultz, professor of Christian education, contributed to Duck’s own approach of “varying the learning methods and trying to go with the energy of students’ interests.” Attending college during the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Duck also had the opportunity one summer to perform research on “Crisis in the Nation,” a Presbyterian curriculum about civil rights. She communicated with various Presbyterian churches around the city to understand how those churches related to the issues at hand. Duck states that she grew spiritually and intellectually, with college helping her to “put things together.”

Duck’s parents have always loved poetry and language, and her appreciation of those realms stems back to childhood. After seminary, Duck became more aware of “sexism and the need to work on the roles of women in the church.” She knew she wanted to work in the arts. In 1974 she was a part of a group that published a hymnal with inclusive language. It sparked her interest in writing hymns. “I wrote new ones that related to the original texts (‘Lead on, O King Eternal’ and ‘Rise up, O Men of God’) rather than changing the words here and there. I seek to use the diversity of images that are in Scripture to write hymns.”

To date, Duck has written some 150 hymns and several books. She has two works in the making: a textbook for worship and a book about liturgies on healing and reconciliation. The textbook will examine the history and practice of Christian worship, mindful of the varied ways that Christians of different traditions and cultures worship God, all while trying to be concise. “I hope that this will help seminarians and local clergy and leaders develop worship into an act that is as faithful and vital as it can be.” The second book involves ways in which the church can become more intentionally inclusive to usually marginalized people, such as those with disabilities. Duck maintains, “One aspect of healing is that the church and the world become more welcoming and accessible to all people.”

John Somervill ′60

A psychology major from Rhodes, John Somervill shows appreciation for the educational experience that cultivated his sense of values. He remembers Dr. Llewellyn Queener, chair of the Psychology Department. With recommendations from professors such as Queener, he went on to graduate school. After receiving his doctorate, Somervill eventually became a full professor of psychology at Northern Iowa University, later taking on the role of graduate dean for 15 years. Last year, he returned to the classroom and now teaches introductory psychology and abnormal psychology.

During his time at Rhodes, Somervill refers to himself as a “frustrated English major,” writing for the newspaper and working as coeditor of the literary magazine. Having begun to write in high school, at Rhodes he enjoyed the creative writing course taught by Dan Ross. As a senior, Somervill wrote a book titled Tomorrow’s Call Girls, about a young man’s involvement in a drug ring. He had first submitted the manuscript to his creative writing course. Amused, Somervill recalls “suffering some grief” for this published work; where there existed minor sexual references, his editor had later “beefed it up, making it much more explicit.” Rejecting a contract shortly after that publication due to the editor’s repeated desire to make his next manuscript more sexual, Somervill has since concentrated mostly on teaching psychology. He coauthored a book on abnormal psychology in the ’70s and has published some 25 articles in professional journals.

Academia being his passion, Somervill plans to teach for a couple of years before retirement. “Writing remains an unfulfilled fantasy,” he says. With regard to his Rhodes experience, Somervill remembers, “People left with a more internalized sense of values rather than adoption of their parents’ beliefs. I think most of us carried those values throughout our professional careers. They have definitely impacted people in the way they thought—how they approached problems and life. It was a beautiful experience being on that campus at that time.”

Steve Stern ′70

A native of Memphis, Steve Stern lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where he teaches English at Skidmore College. He found his passion for writing when he began working at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis during the ’80s. Assigned to research an old Jewish neighborhood along North Main Street, he unearthed a “vanished community,” which inspired the fiction writing he continues to do today.

An English major, Stern underwent the uncertainty caused by Vietnam, continually making sure that his draft deferment still held. During this less-than-stable, experimental time, he graduated into a world “full of mad encounters and crackpot utopian notions that invited departure from everything that was familiar.” At Rhodes, he admired professors such as Jack Farris and Dick Wood, both of whom shaped Stern’s notions of writing and the powerful nature of literature.

For years after graduation, Stern found himself either employed or not from London to New Orleans, a decade he describes as “full of false starts.” When he returned to Memphis to work for the Center for Southern Folklore, which he supposes was a fated event, Stern found himself absorbed in the neighborhood called the Pinch, where he researched the Jewish community. He describes such a discovery as a “homecoming, the environment where I felt my imagination belonged.” Having struggled with his identity as a writer years after leaving college, Stern states: “Not only was I seduced by the life that had transpired in the East European enclave, but I was introduced to the echoes that I followed all the way back to the Old Country and further on into the past.”

Three books resulting from this revelation have in common the setting of North Main. Later works are expanded to places such as New York’s Lower East Side, where his most recent work Angel of Forgetfulness takes place. He continues to teach and maintains his studies of Jewish literature and mythology.

Charlaine Harris (Schulz) ′73

Charlaine Harris (Schulz) graduated from Rhodes with a double major in English and communication arts. She wrote poetry and one-act plays during college. Her work experience after graduation included a minimum-wage job at a small newspaper and working as a typesetter for Federal Express. Now a full-time writer who resides in Magnolia, AR, Harris recalls her college experience and describes herself as fortunate. She learned how to apply classes—seemingly unrelated to her concentration—to her own pursuits.

Professors who influenced Harris include Ray Hill and Bernice White. Additionally, in one history class she took to fulfill a degree requirement, she recalls the initial frustration with having to write a long term paper coupled with encouragement received from her professor, George Apperson. She remembers, “The day he assigned the paper he said, ‘I know I can expect the very best from all of you.’ He was totally optimistic and sincere. That really struck me, and I quickly got over resenting the assignment.” Throughout her time at Rhodes, she found her outlook changing with regard to the nature of college. Harris now sees Rhodes as a valuable tool: “Instead of considering my time in college as sort of a protected playtime until I had to go forth into the self-supporting real world, I realized that my parents were sacrificing considerably, imagining that I was preparing myself to earn a living in that aforementioned real world.”

Ever since Harris could spell and grip a pencil, she has written; while part of the workforce, she experienced a “dry spell.” Hardly able to stay away, she has enjoyed working as a full-time writer and has now written 21 books, several short stories and a novella. Her newest book, Grave Sight, came out this fall; the first of a new series, the book illustrates the goings-on of a girl who was struck by lightning at the age of 15 and who makes her living by finding the dead. Harris also has been writing an ongoing series about Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid, which she describes as “a hoot to write.” She recently has signed a contract with “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball, who plans to write a pilot based on the Sookie Stackhouse series for HBO. Finally making a living wage after 25 years in the business, Harris comments, “It’s what I love to do.”

Jill Herbers ′82

Jill Herbers has lived in New York since graduating from Rhodes. She calls it a “great place for creativity.” She is also a seasoned traveler, having ventured to countries as diverse as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Tunisia, where she has uncovered clues to cultures in their art while researching her books. Nonetheless, the city of New York has seen Herbers’ creative development, ranging from writing to art to music.

An English major, Herbers appreciates the diversity in subject matter offered in a liberal arts education. Professors such as Fred Neal and Larry Lacy contributed to her experience. From biology courses to dreaded 8 a.m. art classes that turned out to be more than worth getting up for because of their dynamism, she comments, “I could take these classes out of my realm, and they helped me understand how to think about things. I took that with me. The required courses in different areas gave me greater understanding of things as a whole that has helped my career and life.” The small size of the Rhodes community proves a favorite as well with Herbers, who enjoyed the interactive atmosphere that created an interconnectedness among students with similar concentrations.

Beginning her postcollege career, Herbers worked as an editor at Macmillan publishers, gaining writing skills by “rewriting others’ work.” Around the late ’80s, she ultimately decided that such a pursuit was not creative enough for her. She wrote her first book, Great Adaptations, which shows how buildings such as barns, firehouses and churches have been converted to homes. In June 2005, the book came out in a new edition from HarperCollins. Her interest in architecture has continued in her books such as Tile (1996) and a more recent work, Pre-Fab Modern, which came out last year.

Tile explores the origins of tile and its appearance in cultural expressions as well as its use in homes. Pre-Fab Modern displays Herbers’ passion for architecture, discussing revolutionary houses that are “affordable but also look like works of art.”

Herbers has written eight books and numerous magazine articles, but now looks to explore her musical interests. She played piano and flute at Rhodes and took numerous music courses; she currently has been working on compositions for film and television. Last winter, she worked on a public art project, Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project, involving a series of flags throughout Central Park in New York. Inspired by this event, Herbers composed a jazz-oriented piece and took it to the documentary-filmmaker for the art project. The piece is currently under consideration for the documentary. Herbers wishes to concentrate on writing and selling songs. She comments, “It came naturally. Sometimes I switch from one art form to another. For me, it’s more about expressing creativity.”

Carol Colclough Strickland ’68

Carol Colclough Strickland has been an avid writer since childhood, thanks to encouragement from her parents and teachers. After finishing her graduate education at the University of Michigan, Strickland taught at various colleges in the New York area. During a sabbatical year in the ’80s, she began free-lance writing and never looked back. She launched her full-time career writing about contemporary artists living on the East End of Long Island for The New York Times. It led to writing books on art and architecture, such as The Annotated Mona Lisa and The Annotated Arch, on which she collaborated with fellow alum John Boswell ’67.

American studies was the most “inspiring” course at Rhodes, Strickland recalls, a class that steered her postgraduate education as well as her career. Of the course she says, “Studying everything from pop culture to art, I always look at what the works tell us about society and people’s concerns.” One of the most formative learning experiences for Strickland included the high expectations of the professors. In analyzing literature in her courses at Rhodes, Strickland states: “We really looked at it as a comment on the human condition.” She remembers the rigor of the classes, boasting that she still quotes Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” at cocktail parties, a holdover from John Quincy Wolf’s romantic poetry course.

Taking Rhodes’ approach with her, Strickland has worked as an art critic for The Christian Science Monitor and with John Boswell, writing introductory books on art and architecture. She is currently working on an illustrated timeline of the history of art as part of a series, a project she categorizes as “edu-tainment.” The goal remains to grab people’s attention with visual elements and teach them the essentials without obscure, dense technical descriptions.

In the future, Strickland wishes to write a novel about sixth-century Byzantium, concentrating on the powerful empress Theodora. Dramatizing the life of a strong heroine to expand on standard histories feeds into other pursuits. She’s written screenplays focusing on women’s lives that have won prizes in contests such as the American Scriptwriting Institute and Austin Film Festival. She’d like to write more screenplays and eventually break through with a feature film.

In any case, she continually focuses on the relationship between art and society. Exploring multiple avenues of art, Strickland believes one can “derive clues from our culture to understand what’s happening in the world, what people care about, and emerging trends.”

John Boswell ’67

Originally interested in studying mathematics, John Boswell graduated from Rhodes with a major in English. Required to take a Milton course, Boswell initially dreaded the boredom he’d have to suffer for an entire semester. However John Quincy Wolf, who taught the course, helped his student have a change of heart. Boswell remembers, “He had such a love for Milton, and I realized the connection between writing and the passion it can engender.”

Boswell remains appreciative of the quirky ways in which some professors, such as Jack Farris, taught. Farris, while teaching a “life isn’t fair” lesson in a literature course, told the class an anecdote stemming from his parenting experience. When Farris’ kindergartener son was punished for being in a food fight, although he didn’t throw a crumb, his father told him: “If you’re five years old and still don’t know that life isn’t fair, then it’s time you learned.” Teaching his class works by Joyce and Dostoevsky, Farris allowed for their applicability in daily life.

Though he gained much from the classroom at Rhodes, Boswell describes his college years as unusual. He discusses the weight of Vietnam bearing on every male’s mind: “It was a crapshoot whether or not you’d be drafted. I remember not being aware of what to do career-wise until what was happening there was resolved. My primary focus was how not to get drafted.” Following college he entered Naval Officer Candidate School. Three years later, he was still at a loss for career options. After meeting a naval reserve officer who was an editor, Boswell became interested in the prospect and attended the Radcliffe publishing course at Harvard. While there, he wrote a paper about mass-market paperbacks, which sparked his editorial director’s interest and landed him a job in New York.

A book packager, Boswell has created more than 700 books for publishers, and has written some 17 books. A common strain in his own books involves contemporary humor and pop culture; many times his partner in the process is Henry Beard, “almost the founder of modern humor.” Some of the books they have produced include Where’s Saddam? and OJ’s Legal Pad. Where’s Saddam? is a parody of the children’s book Where’s Spot?—“Is Saddam hiding in a French café? No, that’s Geraldo Rivera.” OJ’s Legal Pad, evidently compiled during the infamous trial, is formatted like a legal pad with the writers’ guesses on what he could be thinking, such as drawing nasty doodles of the judge.

Two companion books appeared on the scene this Christmas: A Dog’s Night Before Christmas and A Cat’s Night Before Christmas. Boswell considers these books to be “faux children’s category for all ages.” For next fall, working with fellow alum Carol Strickland, Boswell is to produce illustrated timelines on subjects ranging from science to art as well as “pop books,” which cater to those who “impulse buy.” Subjects might range from “The Official Rules of Bad Golf” to “What Did Jesus Do?” In reference to book publishing he muses, “It involves a range of subjects. What one hopes to get from a liberal arts education is curiosity and passion, which enable me to do what I do.”