Old buildings have always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I used to search for old abandoned farmhouses where I was sure I’d find all sorts of interesting things—yellowed newspapers stuffed in the walls, tools or toys or items I could never identify—broken, discarded, or just left behind. I gained a budding appreciation for architecture in that way. I still walk around the Old Market or Benson or Dundee and spend as much time looking up at the buildings as watching for cracks and uneven pavement.
The last few years have found me involved with two major historical renovation projects; one is Rankin Hall, the former administration building at Tarkio College; the other is the Benson Theatre. Both are on the National Register of Historic Buildings and badly in need of an expensive dose of Tender Loving Care. At the same time, the organizations seeking to restore these structures—the Tarkio College Alumni Association and the Benson Theatre Project group—not only want to preserve the buildings but give them new life and new purpose.
The buildings need restoration, a return to their former elegance and efficiency and ability. Both have stood a century or more and need some upgrades, as well—a facelift, a few new joints, better wiring, a new furnace—rejuvenation, if you will. Even if both restoration and rejuvenation are possible, however, the time that has passed since their heyday has also left their original purposes a bit dated. Their usefulness needs reinvention and repurposing for the modern age. These are the goals of the groups working diligently on the projects, and I have entered the fray for each, donating sweat and time and thought and a dollar or two.
At first I was a bit reluctant to get involved with either effort. The last year has been devastating for me, but I have realized recently that of all the metaphors swirling around me as identifiers for my life, these two projects probably come closest to home. When my wife and my parents passed away last year, my foundation crumbled. I lost my best friends, my most trusted advisors, my closest links to my past, my comfort and security in the future, and the well-springs of my dearest loves. The doors were falling off their hinges. The roof beams were sagging. Vandals had broken the windows. The pipes were frozen. The pilot light had gone out. I was badly in need of restoration.
Luckily, I have sons and family and friends who, even if they didn’t know it, helped me begin the long process of salvaging the life that was teetering on ruin and loss. My restoration began in every handshake, hug, card, phone call, email…and casserole. At times I felt like George Bailey returned from his dream to understand just how wonderful his life was. I don’t have anyone named Clarence, but I definitely have “angels” in my life. The building is secure.
The second part of this metaphor was up to me, however. Each of us has to be in charge of his or her own rejuvenation. Oh, it might take a good doctor to help get the cholesterol and blood pressure down to manageable levels despite a change in diet and exercise, but it still takes diet and exercise! Physical health, however, is just part of the equation. It takes some mental rejuvenation, also, and like physical activity, you can’t do it sitting on your ass in front of the television set or your computer. That’s why you will find me out listening to music in Benson and around the Omaha area. Or attending the opera or the ballet or the symphony or a play. It’s also why I got involved in those two building restoration projects. Rankin Hall in Tarkio is a labor of love from my youth and a hope that the new Tarkio College concept will again provide opportunities for students of all ages. The Benson Theatre project, though, is personal to me as part of the next phase of my own life.
For forty-one years I was a classroom teacher or college administrator. I still find myself teaching in some capacity even if it isn’t in a classroom. As I’ve said before, teaching isn’t what I do, it’s who I am. When my Nancy was in what turned out to be her final weeks, though, I retired from the classroom. It’s been almost a year and a half since I actually stood before my students and led them to their discoveries. So…who am I now?
I always wanted to write. Since I was thirteen, I’ve been dabbling with poetry. Recently I started seriously working on short fiction and these essays and possibly a novel. And I’m still writing a poem now and then. My dream from those early years, of course, was to publish a book. I even had a title. Dandelions & Other Flowers, a collection of verse, was published in late February 2014. That fantasy came true because of the Benson Theatre project.
While sharing ideas with my good friend Amy Ryan one afternoon in January, I mentioned that I had started a concentrated effort to really get back to writing. It was my goal for retirement anyway. She thought that I should join a writer’s group, something I had toyed with but hadn’t pursued. One was meeting that Thursday evening. OK. I went. Had a ball. My fellow scribblers inspire me to keep doing it. The week after that first meeting, one of the members of the group was being feted at a reading. My friend and singer/songwriter Michael Campbell was going to provide some music, as well.
That night was fun. Heard some good writing and good music. Met some more interesting people. Afterward I was chatting with Michael, and in the flow of conversation I learned that he was in the business of preparing books or manuscripts for digital uploading to the many online presses that have popped up around the country. This new version of the “vanity press” is a wonderful medium for publishing because the initial expense is minimal, and the resulting book is printed on demand, not 5,000 all at once that have to be marketed and sold in volume. We had lunch the following Tuesday. By the end of the week, Michael had my book ready to upload! The end of the next week I had my proof copy in hand. Three weeks from my initial, casual conversation with Amy and I had my book!
I have now reinvented myself as a writer. The process is ongoing as I navigate murkier waters of marketing and other opportunities, but I have expert advisors on whom I may call, right here! This is where the Benson Theatre project comes into this. All those serendipitous conversations that eventually led to my first book are the vision inherent for the purpose of the Benson Theatre. We (yes, WE) want to provide classes—for free—to artists young and old to help them realize their dreams. Entrepreneurship classes, business classes, contacts with the professionals they need to meet and know in order to pursue those dreams. That’s the daylight hours of operation. At night we’ll light up Benson nights with performances by those same artists and others so they have a space to display their talents.
I have been restored, rejuvenated, reinvented. I invite you to join me in recreating the Benson Theatre and Tarkio College, whichever fits with you—or both! You never know when you might benefit from the fountain of youth that this service could be.