Writers at Large: Phoebe Ministries Residents Find Community through Written Word
When Ronnie Backenstoe sat down to write her autobiography, she said to herself, “What did I get myself into? I’ve never written a thing in my life!”
Eight “good” chapters and more than 300 pages later, Backenstoe was ready to publish. “I got writing and I didn’t know when to stop!” she laughs. “The more I thought about it, the more I wrote down, and I tried to make the stories all fun and loving.” Backenstoe was prompted by her grandnephews to write a book of her life and memories that would preserve the family’s history from its early days in the Adirondack Mountains. Using a typewriter, she composed a series of chapters, each representing a particular place where she had spent a part of her life. Late last year, Backenstoe started working with a friend of hers to arrange the book for publishing. She intends to print the book on demand, in paperback and also in hardcover for family.
Since April 2011, Backenstoe has been submitting excerpts from her book to WRITERS, a magazine of written work by the members of the Phoebe Berks community, where she has lived since 2002. WRITERS was founded in 1997 by the Rev. Raymond Wolfgang and has since been led by a succession of editors. The late Don Kimberling was one of the most prominent; a former television sports announcer, Kimberling was a one-man show with the magazine, leading interviews in the community and establishing a sports commentary page. The Rev. Walter Krieger has been at the helm since 2017. He contributes humorous satire, and established an editorial page to give himself a different medium of expression as editor.
“It was interesting to me to see what people my age and older were writing about,” Rev. Krieger recalls about his initial involvement in the magazine. He started submitting to WRITERS three years ago and he is an encouraging voice in the community as publication continues. “I tell people all we need is to use our imaginations and keep writing, writing, writing—it’s what you do,” says Rev. Krieger. “You may not ever be a professional writer but with practice you can work up some good stuff.”
Terrace Treasures Helps Neighbors Get to Know Each Other
At the Terrace at Phoebe Allentown a corresponding — albeit younger — publication has sprung up. The Terrace Treasures is the brainchild of Mary Jane Lentz, who piloted the magazine with her friend Carolyn Potser, a retired English teacher and neighbor at the Terrace. “Our purpose is to record our stories, past and present” the magazine boilerplate reads. From 2010 to the time of Lentz’s death in 2015 the magazine was published four times a year, and since then twice a year.
“It was meant to bring people together,” says Potser, “to break the ice.” Lentz, she recalls, felt strongly that people in their community needed a magazine to help them get to know each other in a way that conversations in passing or over dinner did not always accomplish. To get people started, the editors determined a loose theme for each issue that would act as a prompt; the writers took it from there.
“It was a wonderful thing to get going,” says Marian Dawson, a close friend of Mary Jane Lentz. Dawson is a more seasoned writer than some — she wrote a regular column for years as part of her job in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Terrace Treasures is both a tribute to a dear friend, and a source of delight for readers. “We are all so pleased to get a copy,” Dawson says. Dawson herself submits lighthearted pieces—“Just things that pop into my head. That’s the kind of thing that’s fun,” she says.
What they produced together has become a compendium of the lives and memories of the Terrace community. Potser edits all of the content now, and her friend Sara Whildin typesets it for printing. Each issue features a variety of genres, from works of fiction and nonfiction, to poetry, autobiography, and memoir.
Memoirs Become Looked-Forward-To Installments
The pursuit of memoir in all its variations and guises is a prevailing theme among Phoebe’s writers. Dick Whitney, who came to Phoebe Berks in 2001, started writing two years later for the sake of his children and grandchildren. He says a lot of writers have done it for the same reason. “I started writing and I didn’t have an overall plan but I ended up with a first volume that was almost an autobiography about places I’d been and things I did including WWII.” Whitney has produced an article for WRITERS every month nearly as long as he’s lived at Phoebe Berks — 195 by his most recent count; together with other works, totaling several volumes, they have been bound in hardcover and presented to the Phoebe Berks community library. Some of Whitney’s earlier work is now being reprinted in WRITERS for new generations to read.
Kenneth Dearstyne, another prolific contributor to WRITERS, has found the means to share his story with an even wider audience. Of the 120 stories printed in the magazine, 100 have been gathered into a volume called “Memories: From a Chaplain’s Notebook” (2013) and published through a Mennonite firm in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. The book has been through three printings and sold several hundred copies; it’s particularly popular at WWII weekend events in Reading.
“Writing [these stories] was so simple, and so interesting, and so fulfilling,” says Dearstyne. “I feel very satisfied that I’ve put these stories into print and that they’ll be remembered long after me.”
The interest in and impulse to record personal stories is widespread. Carolyn Potser at the Terrace is writing a history at the request of her family, assembling stories and anecdotes dating from the time of her great-grandfather, Charles Benjamin Rothrock. She vividly recalls her first meeting with him as a child, when he took her into his house for a glass of water and showed her his collection of German almanacs dating back to 1801. Her neighbor and a frequent contributor to The Terrace Treasures, George Yoder, has been working on his memoirs for 15 years. He says he got started in a support group and has since shared selections of his work with family. “They enjoy it as much as I do,” says Yoder. “The experience feels good—to review my life through my memoirs.” On whether he plans to publish his memoirs, Yoder laughs and says, “We’ll wait and see.”
Yoder’s contributions often focus on memories from the war years, and this is not an uncommon feature in the resident magazines. Other writers bring different perspectives. “My wife tells me that I wax philosophical too often and it gets esoteric,” laughs Fred Blumer of Phoebe Berks Village. “On the other hand people have told me they enjoy some of the weird things I’ve written.” Blumer says he writes essentially to clarify his own thoughts. He has submitted poems and essays on a variety of topics. He recently wrote a two-part series on his childhood experiences in rural Mississippi, and completed a book about his and his wife’s lives. “Homeward Bound” starts with a brief account of his and Ann’s childhoods, and follows their lives together from a chance meeting at Millsaps College to their present home at Phoebe Berks. Blumer wrote the book for his sons, and plans to print it for posterity. He has also written for Phoebe’s marketing office as part of a promotional advertorial.
What ties all of these writers together is their found ability and motivation to communicate with each other and future generations on a different plane. Many of them never wrote before moving to Phoebe. Finding their community within Phoebe opened the door for a new experience, a new way of looking at the world and at themselves. The result is a record of unique lives that continues to live and grow.
Today at the front of each issue of WRITERS, the following message is inscribed, at once a memorial and a commission: “Ray [Wolfgang] … challenged us to write, to stretch our minds, to exercise our creativity, to give our imaginations free rein … to tell our story.” Whether they are writing for their own families, or for a magazine read by their peers, these writers have met that calling.
Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2018 edition of the Messenger. Read the entire Spring 2018 issue of Phoebe Ministries’ Messenger.
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