One man's writing life

Friday December 30, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- One day in 1952, Frank Buckingham, the managing editor of the (Cherokee, Iowa) Daily Times, gave Richard Graber some news.

"Frank was a good man, nervous as a cat," Richard recalls, sitting in an easy chair in his room at Hilltop House. His daughter Becky sits nearby.

"He told me that he and Dwight, the publisher, were going to the Iowa State basketball playoffs. They were going to stay there the whole time and cover it in depth. That was a big thing then, in DEPTH."

He turns his quiet, burnished voice around the word, the vocal equivalent of a raised eyebrow, poking fun at this remembered pretension.

"I was the third man on the team at the paper. So I asked him, what would I be doing?"

Richard dips his head forward, a little bow before the punchline.

"He said, ‘You'll be here, getting the paper out.'"

Richard was 25 years old. This was his first newspaper job, his first writing job. He'd been there for 14 days.

He shrugs. "Well, what could I say? I said, ‘OK.'"

With pluck and luck, Richard managed to get the Daily Times out each day, though the fellows in the back shop, where the paper was put together, did give him some trouble.

"Nothing but trouble! But mainly just from the guy in charge, Slim, who was in those days quite rotund." The joke winks past, and Richard's smile is quick and wry.

The work may have been rough and tumble, but for a man about to become a lifelong professional writer, the job at the Cherokee Daily Times was the best in the world. It taught him how to deal with people, how to work fast and thoroughly, how to know what was news.

The job taught him how to write.

Growing up in Granite Falls, Minn., in the 1930s and 40s, Richard wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be a writer, but he was always drawn to the arts and literature. He was sensitive to nature, to his own emotions, and to the tumult of life around him. Lucky for him, his hometown librarians, Lois Palmer and Anna Feley, were early subscribers to The New Yorker magazine.

"I was a young teenager when I started reading The New Yorker," he says. "Or, well, at least going through and reading the cartoons. But that was back when they had real writers, James Thurber and E.B. White."

After a stint in the Navy, Richard enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He majored in architecture for a year and a half until a perceptive friend asked him what the hell he was doing in architecture. Richard knew his friend was right, so he took a career counseling test to figure out what to do with his particular mix of skills and personality. He ended up taking the test 14 times.

He pauses in remembering. "That would make a good column, wouldn't it?" He turns to Becky with the thoughtful, certain spark of a mind trained to find stories. "The 14 times I took the advisory test."

She smiles."It would be good, Dad."

"I'll have to remember to find out what it was called," he says.

"I'll remind you."

That advisory test eventually steered Richard right, and he began his work with news and words. Though he started at a daily paper in Iowa, he moved to magazines and freelance work before joining Minnesota Suburban Newspapers, Inc., as an editor and writer in the early 1960s.

His voice on the page grew rich and wry over the years, particularly in a regular column, called "The Column," that he wrote from 1962 to 1965.

Covering the absurdities and pleasures of modern life, the column was by turns gentle and bemused, friendly and funny. Much like E.B. White, Richard could express deep feeling by observing small details with a kind of self-aware detachment, and writing with energetic, precise language.

Richard was particularly good at capturing the personalities and tones of his three kids, who appeared in the columns often. Once, Richard regaled his readers with a letter he wrote to the Cracker Jack Company after his son, John, didn't find a prize in his box of Cracker Jacks. (The company replied with apologies, he reported with amusement, and a pile of loot for John.)

A special highlight came in 1960, when The New Yorker published his comic essay "Deturtling," about a turtle getting stuck in the fender well of his 1953 Mercury.

"I had been sending them stuff, once every month," Richard says. "I finished this turtle story and I really thought I'd hit it -- and they sent it back. Again! With a generic, ‘Good writing, keeping submitting,' letter."

He frowns. "So I was mad already. I said, I'm not going to take that lying down! Of course, I said it to myself, in my bedroom. I decided to send it again. I didn't change a word. And they bought it!"

Becky laughs, leaning forward with surprise. "Dad, I didn't know that!"

"Yup," he says.

Eventually, Richard left newspapers to work for several medical magazines, as staff person and freelance writer, and moved to the East Coast with the jobs.

He also began working on his novels, which were pioneers in the emerging Young Adult category. The first, "A Little Breathing Room," based on his childhood in Granite Falls, came out in 1976, followed by three more over the next 10 or so years.

Life was busy and full for Richard in the latter end of his career. In addition to his medical writing, he had his novels and other freelance work. He began teaching correspondence courses in writing children's literature. He pursued his musical hobbies, clarinet and singing. He found his way back to Minnesota. A few years ago, he relocated to Brattleboro, where Becky lives.

And he had a lifetime of dear colleagues and friends.

His attention slides inward, away from the room. "One thing I really liked about my career -- the people I met, the people I worked with."

He stops, and a sad longing fills the room. "Sorry," he says.

"Oh, Dad," Becky says. "Don't be sorry, Dad. You met a lot of good people."

"That was No. 1," he says. "And they're not around now."

He reaches for his water cup, a wide, complicated thing that looks like a small puce rocket ship, and raises his eyebrows at its ridiculousness.

He takes a sip. "And I ran into the regular percentage of sleazeballs, too. You know, they are everywhere," he says with cheerful matter-of-factness.

That tone suits Richard Graber. A writer becomes attuned to the truths of his life and the world around him. As Richard does, the writer absorbs and reports those truths as best he can, sensitive to wonder and sorrow, sublimity and sleaziness, in equal measure.

If he's lucky, he also lives in good company, with affection and love.

At the end of "Charlotte's Web, E.B. White wrote, "It is not often someone comes along who's a true friend and good writer. Charlotte was both."

Richard Graber is, too.


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