Teri Vance: Finding kindred soul through library card
So, I have a confession to make. And it’s a big one. Up until Thursday, I haven’t had a library card. Oh, I had one many years ago, but I was irresponsible with it, so I stopped using it and was “purged” from the system.
But Barry Smith, director of the Nevada Press Association, has been telling me to read the book “Aged in Sage,” written by Jean McElrath. It piqued my interest because McElrath was a 1935 Wells High School graduate and a journalist. While I’m also both of those things, she did them better. She was class valedictorian (I was salutatorian) and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame (the best I’ll hope for is winningest camel jockey journalist).
Thursday, I gathered up my pride, applied for a library card and checked out, “Aged in Sage,” written in 1964 about the ranchers and other personalities around the Wells area where I grew up.
McElrath is remarkable for her writing. The Nevada State Journal wrote about her: “She liked to write of the funny things best. She put a twist in her pieces of humor that often made the reader laugh aloud.”
She also faced much difficulty. At 16, she developed progressive rheumatoid arthritis and around the age of 20, lost the ability to walk and became bedridden. By 32, she was completely blind.
She worked from a table over her bed where she kept her electric typewriter she nicknamed Simon Legree. Next to her, she kept a telephone, a radio and a tape recorder, which she used to record people telling their stories she would later write.
Her mom and sister edited her copy before sending it out. When she had to go out on a story, her sister would load her on a gurney she called, “the Zephyr,” into the back of a station wagon and take her there.
In her column, “Tumbleweeds,” she wrote about the daily happenings in Wells.
I read a couple of the columns from a compilation published after her death in 1967, which I also checked out from the library. So far, my favorite is about a 4-year-old Ginger Bradley who tried to hop a train to Salt Lake City.
In the foreward to the book, Pulitzer-Prize winning Nevada author Robert Laxalt wrote, “Reading ‘Tubleweeds’ is like being invited into the privacy of a typical Wells home and hearing friendly family gossip.”
He pointed out, “Underlying all of this, one cannot ignore the touching recollection that Jean saw the goings-on of Wells even though she was blind. In a sense, this may be the secret of the revealing intimacy of ‘Tumbleweeds.’”
McElrath herself may have seen her blindness as a strength.
She wrote a letter in 1966 talking of handicaps: “Nearly everyone is handicapped in some way. Hardly anyone is handicapped in every way. Personality handicaps can be much greater than physical ones. They’re more difficult to recognize and acknowledge. And, while it doesn’t pay to spend time brooding over a handicap, one does have to face the thing, acknowledge it, before one can try besting it.”
I’m glad Barry talked me into checking her out and reading her writings. In her, I have found a kindred soul. Her struggles help put my own into perspective, especially when I read what the Wells Progress wrote about her: “At times it has been unduly hard for Jean to get her column ready on time. She has gone through more torture than most of us could ever hope to bear.”
Teri Vance is a journalist, freelance writer and native Nevadan. Contact her with column ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.