When my dad died in the spring of 2019, I was tasked with dealing with the contents of his four-drawer filing cabinet—the drawers jam-packed with his short stories and speeches dating back to 1947 when he was still in high school.
They were also packed with menus he’d stolen from various restaurants over the years. I know what you’re thinking. “But, Becky, restaurants want you to take their to-go menus.” Yes, yes, they do. But I’m guessing they don’t want you to brazenly stroll out with their 24-inch leather-covered dinner menu as a keepsake to be jammed into a filing cabinet for your horrified daughter to find. But I digress.
The idea was that I’d produce something for the family—my siblings, my kids, nieces, nephews, maybe cousins who’d be interested in his writings. I spent several months wading through the drawers, just seeing what was there. I’d known since I was in college that he’d written some short stories, but I hadn’t realized just how many he had.
He’d been a Toastmaster since 1951 or so, and attained the rank of Grand Pooh-Bah—I think that’s right—over the course of his speaking career. For most of the time, and well into his 80s, he was in multiple clubs, so there were lots of speeches too.
Once I realized the magnitude of his output, I had to figure out how to curate it.
The short stories I could wrap my brain around, but so many of them had been typed in the 1950s on pink or yellow onionskin paper (!!) that I’d have to physically re-type all of them.
The speeches I couldn’t wrap my brain around at all, because how was I supposed to convey—in writing—something that wasn’t actually written?
(I also found some audio and video of him giving his speeches which we were able to transfer to digital files. One of the audio tapes was him on Arizona Public Radio. The videos were from speech contests. So much fun to see!)
I was stymied for months trying to figure out how to curate this collection. Finally I pulled my wits about me and made a decision. I’d get other people to do it for me!
I sent off as many of the short stories as I could to volunteer (and a few voluntold) family members, with instructions to type the stories into Word documents that I could edit and then compile.
But that still left me with a zillion stories on that crazy colored onionskin that couldn’t be scanned and emailed that I’d have to type myself. It also left me with all those files of speeches.
When I started to curate the speeches for reals—rather than just waving at the boxes piled in my guest room as I walked past—I began to see his process. Some files were fat with notes, evaluations, and research. Some just had single sheets of paper that only showed me he had given a speech with that title at some point. But many had the entire genesis, from handwritten notes to fully-written speeches (almost like his short stories) to winner’s certificates and ribbons.
Okay. Maybe I could do this.
I started getting the finished stories back from my typists. So I sent them some more. I started typing the ones I couldn’t pawn off on others. And I started figuring out which speeches I could recreate in their entirety, and which I could summarize, and which I could only determine the dates on which they were given.
My confidence grew with my momentum. And my backache.
I’m happy to say that sometime this month my family will be able to order their very own copy of “The End of a Circle—A Robert Oscar Clark Anthology,” 395 pages completely my dad.
He was a grand storyteller in real life, witty and imaginative, and every single page has something to laugh or cry at, or to make you shake your head and say, “Wow, what a weirdo.”
You know, like any good writer.
I’d like to think he’d be tickled to see his name on a book, but I regret never talking to him about why he never tried to get any of his stories published. Was he terrified of rejection? Did he quit writing because he had no time, with a passel of kids to raise? Did he lose interest? Was giving speeches more gratifying?
He joined Toastmasters at the urging of his first boss, fully intending to quit just as soon as he got a different boss. But he loved it and stayed, chartering seven or eight clubs in several states over the years.
After he retired, he took some fiction and poetry classes at the Adult Learning School, so it’s clear he enjoyed writing.
So much personal history is lost when our parents and grandparents die. Things you never thought to ask about, either because you didn’t know, or because you already thought you knew enough.
This little project showed me so much about my dad. It was my honor and privilege to create it. I hope I did him justice.
I’ll leave you with a couple of his poems, to give you a small sense of him.
Readers, do you have a legacy project from your parents or grandparents? Or will your kids have one of yours?