The Ballad of Old Man Peters

In 1982, Jon Franklin, then a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, paid a visit to Wilk Peters, a retired college librarian who had recently received an award for his volunteer work with a church group.

Not exactly a Pulitzer prize winning assignment.

But Franklin turned it into one--that interview eventually became "The Ballad of Old Man Peters

If you've not read it, than drop everything and do it now.

Wilk was not always a retired librarian who spoke six langauages and travelled the world. In 1913, he was the teenaged son of a sharecropper in Trinity County, Texas, who dreamt of being a doctor. Until his father came home on spring day and collapsed:

. . . in autumn, as the days began to grow short, Wilk's father died. They buried him in a small cemetery not far from the farm he'd been forced to abandon. There was no money for a tombstone.

Wilk stood, numb, by the grave. Without his father's strength and knowledge, the poverty was suddenly crushing.

When school began a few days later, Wilk's brothers and sisters went but Wilk stayed home. He was needed to take his father's place on the farm.

As the boundaries of Trinity County closed in around him, the 13-year-old clung desperately, hopelessly, to the only thing he had left: his dream.

Peters quit school, and went to work. That could have been the story of the rest of his life, except for the dream. A dream that after he had saved every spare penny for 10 years, drove him to the doors of a college in Texas, where he got a job shoveling coal and re-enrolled in the 6th grade. He did not stop until he finished high school and then enrolled in college--inspired on his way by the words he found in the college library, a place "as sacred as a church" to Peters.

Here's how Franlkin described Peter's arrival on campus.

Intimidated, but firm in his resolve, Wilk Peters demonstrated his knowledge to the admissions officials at Texas College. He could do sums, and he could do take-aways. He knew nouns and verbs . . .

The officials shook their heads, sadly. The fellow knew a little, but too little, and he spoke in the condemning, ignorant slur of the field hand. A pity.

The illiterate adult who showed up on campus, hat in his hands and life savings in his pocket, was a familiar story to black educators. The eagerness to learn had somehow survived in such men as Wilk, but the youthful plasticity was gone from their minds. They tried, but they failed.

Wilk was too old . . . but who would tell him so?

No one. He would have to learn that himself.

They gave him a job shoveling coal in the furnace room of the girls' dormitory, showed him a tiny cubbyhole where he could sleep, and explained to him where the path to knowledge began.

And so Wilk found himself, at age 23, a full-grown man with caloused hands and hardened muscles, sitting with his knees jammed under a tiny desk, wrestling with long division, surrounded by prepubescent sixth-graders.

The effect was not what the admission officials had predicted.

Wilk viewed his place in class as opportunity, not insult. If the children laughed at him he didn't notice, preoccupied as he was with the serious business of fractions, with the parsing of sentences and the memorization of poetry.

Peters would not complete his college education till he was 29 years old, just in time for the start of the Great Depression. After all that, the only job he could find was was a volunteer in the library. That volunteer job was his salvation, eventually leading him to a distinguished career as a librarian.

Since he worked mostly at colleges, he also had time to travel the world, visiting 56 countries, where he put the six languages he spoke--English, German, French, Russian, Spanish, and Italian--to good use.

Have you read "The Ballad of Old Man Peters yet? Really, drop everything and read it.

Then read this description, from Franklin's book, Writing for Story of how he got the story.

I didn’t get the story first. A national newspaper reporter got to Wilk before I did.

Mr. Peters received a certificate of appreciation from a local church organization, where he served as a translator from down-and-out foreign travelers. The reporter heard about it and went out for an interview.

But the reporter made a fatal error. Having been attracted by the certificate, he assumed the certificate was the story. He produced a long, static piece about what a great translator Wilk was, and how much good he did for the travelers. I was, well… a nice story.

I was also fascinated by Wilk’s good works, but I approached the question differently. What, I asked, had motivated this black sharecropper’s son to learn six languages? Why did he expend so much energy to learn them?

Well, shucks, Wilk said. He was just interested in languages.

The earlier reporter had been satisfied with that answer. I wasn’t. Mere interest is simply not enough to explain heroic effort. So I sat Wilk down for an in-depth interview about his life; he held me off for better that an hour with his modesty routine before he finally got tired of it and told me what really happen.

The story, as I suspected it would be the case, was not about the certificate at all, or even about Wilk’s volunteer work. This story was about a young man, born in a shack in Texas, who was smart enough to be terrified of his own ignorance and who was driven enough to overcome it. “The Ballad of Old Man Peters” is a powerful struggle of human aspirations, of man against both himself and the world, and of the stubborn will of the species to survive and prosper.

The national news reporter’s story was soon forgotten; mine made me a tidy sum of cash, was read by millions of people, and is still being reprinted.

The difference? The other reporter didn’t look for the complication, and I did.

Why didn’t he and why did I? I had thought more about the concept of the story than he had, and I was aware that the story, as Wilk told it, was missing a critical element that had to be there.

The moral? Never fixate on just one part of a story.


When Franklin talks about complication, he'd talking about the complex stew of internal and external motivations that lie below the surface of most stories-- especially religion stories--waiting for us to dig into them.

Too many times we journalists, even religion writers--are content to hang out of the surface, like the national reporter who interview Old Man Peters and missed the story. And there's one work for that guy's experience: Suckola.

Franklin's got a definition of story and complication that's worth repeating as well.

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.

And all stories, as Franklin put at Jon Franklin made at a conference on narrative journalism a couple of years back, are about people, not certificates.

Remember that, or someone'll steal your Pulitzer prize


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