John Shearer: ‘Wrinkle In Time’ Author Came To Baylor Several Times

Friday, March 16, 2018 - by John Shearer

When the box office results for last weekend were announced earlier this week, “Black Panther” was the top gross-selling film, while “A Wrinkle in Time” was second. 

Both movies actually have slight connections to Chattanooga. 

Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in 1962 and won a prestigious Newberry Medal award for it, came to Chattanooga at least three times – in 1973, 1979 and 1986. 

And each time, a speech at Baylor School was a main part of her visit. 

The city’s connection to “Black Panther” is that the lead role is played by Chadwick Boseman. He also played Jackie Robinson in the film, “42,” when part of it was shot at a revamped Engel Stadium in 2012 and he was a lesser-known actor than today. 

Finding much information on Mr. Boseman’s time in Chattanooga when the filming was taking place in late May and early June of 2012 has proved unsuccessful to date, however. The main actor everyone seemed interested in at the time was Harrison Ford, who played Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. 

But with the help of Baylor School director of external affairs Barbara Kennedy, who looked in archives and contacted current and past staff members, plenty of information about Ms. L’Engle’s visits could be found. 

The noted author apparently first came to Chattanooga in late September 1973 in connection with the Southeastern Conference of the Association for Childhood Education International meetings being held here. 

The visit was evidently coordinated through Mrs. Myrtle Dye, the supervisor of kindergarten education for the city of Chattanooga. Her speech to students at Baylor was arranged with the help of the late Baylor librarian Bruce High, who was also active in adult education programs in Chattanooga. 

During her speech in the old Baylor chapel to Baylor students on Sept. 28, 1973, she said that writing and her life were interconnected. “Science fiction is the means I use to work out problems I find in everyday living,” she said, according to a News-Free Press article written by Stephanie Bass. 

At the time, she was working on her 18th book, “A Wind in the Door,” which was evidently inspired by the growing dependence of man on computers. She apparently did not like how at places like banks, names were being replaced with numbers. 

So, as a protest, she said that she had been signing checks with such famous literary names as “Emily Bronte” and “Jane Austen” and found they were still clearing the bank. 

She also told the students she had written her first story at the age of five and her first novel at age 11. “I never had a choice,” she said. “I was always going to be a writer.” 

She added that she spent about 18 months on each book. 

One of the Baylor students asked her which book was her favorite, and she replied almost defensively, “That’s like asking me which one of my children I like best. I like all of them, for one reason or another.” 

She did add that “A Wrinkle in Time” had been the most popular, and that “The Young Unicorns” was second. 

She was photographed in the paper with Baylor eighth-grade students Bill Freels (who held the Baylor copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”), Allen Carr, Houston Payne and Bill Riheldaffer. 

A few days after her 1973 talk, librarian Mr. High wrote her a heartfelt thank you letter, saying, “As I listened to your talk in chapel and heard your tacit conviction that young people are worthy of the best conversation, I knew what a rare opportunity we were all having as we listened to a person whose work will endure and influence for generations. 

"There is a quality about something genuine; and when that quality is joined with wisdom and talent, greatness is obvious.” 

For several generations, readers have enjoyed her writing, particularly the “Wrinkle” book, which was initially rejected by a number of publishers because it was considered too different and it dealt openly with the problem of evil. 

Inspired in part by her trip to the stark lands of the West, some reading about quantum physics and her liberal Christian theology, the book deals with a seventh-grade girl who is transformed to another dimension along with her little brother and an older male schoolmate. They end up traveling to different planets and find her missing father and deal with the forces of evil and with children solving problems on their own. 

The movie, which features such actresses as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, makes some of the characters black to add diversity to the storyline. 

Ms. L’Engle also returned to Baylor to speak six years after her first visit when she was in Chattanooga from Nov. 26-28, 1979. 

Mr. High also wrote her a thank-you letter after that event, saying, “What a wonderful time we had with you! The excitement of those three days is still felt this week, and I’m sure if the others here who are your admirers feel as I do, it will endure for a lifetime. 

“You gave us far more than anyone could contract for, and you shared with kids your understanding of their age and the problems of gaining confidence, and they responded,” he continued. 

On Jan. 16-17, 1986, Ms. L’Engle made her third and final visit to Baylor to deliver the school’s Archibald Yell Smith IV lecture held annually in memory of Mr. Smith of the Baylor class of 1972. 

In a speech titled “The Rewards of Failure,” all of which is still on file at Baylor, she told students that success comes when they are not afraid to fail or to take risks. 

After tracing many of her own life experiences, she ended the speech saying, “If we are not free to fail, we will take no risks. 

“We won’t become full human beings unless we are willing to try things we may feel are too difficult for us.” 

Among those who excitedly went to hear her speech in 1986 was Laura Woolsey Willett, then a sixth-grader at St. Jude School. 

Having read “A Wrinkle in Time” and then an aspiring writer who was about the same age as the book’s protagonist, she had been invited by then-Baylor administrator Doug Hale, who knew Laura’s mother. 

Ms. Willettt recalled being both nervous and excited to meet the noted author after her talk. 

“She was so cool,” she recalled. “One of the biggest pieces of advice she said was that when people say to her, ‘I want to be a writer,’ she said, ‘Don’t wait to be a writer, just write. Just do it and it works out.’ 

“Her point was that whatever it is you want to do, don’t talk about wanting to do it. Do it now and find your way.” 

Ms. Willett went on to attend Baylor as one of the first girl students and has worked as an art instructor there for nearly 20 years. Even though she has admittedly forgotten a lot of the details of the book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” since she has not read it in awhile, she still remembers vividly Ms. L’Engle’s advice and has tried to use it in her own life in art and other aspects. 

“She really inspired a lot of confidence in me,” she said. 

Bill Cushman was a longtime teacher at Baylor and also remembers her various talks. He recalled that maybe a group of students in the lower grades had read her book, and she spent some time with them during at least one of her visits. 

And during all of her visits, she apparently showed a genuine interest in the students, he added. 

“My recollection is that she paid careful attention to the age of each group that she was with and that she was extremely effective with all ages,” he said. 

Based on this respectful attitude of young people, Ms. L’Engle would likely have been impressed with and encouraging of the recent efforts by high school students to take a vocal stand to prevent future school shootings. 

While at Baylor, the writer stayed at the Barks Apartment adjacent to Lupton Hall in Lupton Circle. 

Ms. Kennedy said she was impressed looking at all the correspondence between Ms. L’Engle and Mr. High and others related to her talks in those pre-email and pre-texting days. 

“One of her typed letters took her two days to complete and she apologized for the delay due to interruptions ‘that happen all too often,’ ” Ms. Kennedy said. 

During the times that Ms. L’Engle lectured at Baylor and elsewhere, she was keeping a full schedule as a writer. Raised in the New York City area and also an alumna of Ashley Hall School in Charleston, S.C., she lived with her husband, Hugh Franklin, in rural Connecticut and later New York. 

Mr. Franklin was an actor, who at the time of her 1973 visit was playing Dr. Charles Tyler on the ABC soap opera, “All My Children.” He died in September 1986 of cancer a few months after her last Baylor visit. 

Besides writing, Ms. L’Engle also taught school some and served as a volunteer librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. 

She suffered health problems in later years from a car accident, osteoporosis and a cerebral hemorrhage that prevented much lecturing and appearances. She died in Connecticut on Sept. 7, 2007, at the age of 88 and is buried at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 

But her words live on through her books and the memories of those who heard her speak at Baylor and elsewhere in Chattanooga. 

"It definitely left an indelible image on me,” recalled Ms. Willett, adding that she plans this weekend to take the students she advises at Baylor to see the movie. 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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