One day in the fall of 1966, I received a package in the mail from my great aunt, Olive Woolley Burt. It was a copy of her just-published book, “Jayhawker Johnny”. The accompanying letter advised me to look at every page starting at the very beginning and there would be a surprise for me. Just after the copyright page, I found this dedication:
For John Warren Woolley
David Reeder Woolley
dear grandsons of a beloved brother
Well, that was a thrill!
John Woolley is my cousin, close to my age. We’re both grandsons of Cloyd F. Woolley, Olive’s brother.
My mother taught me to read when I was four. By the time I was six I was writing stories on my own initiative, and being recognized for it. I remember a day in 2nd grade when, after I’d read one of my (very short) stories to the class, another student raised his hand and said, “When David writes a story it’s like it came from a book!”
So I began envisioning my future as a writer at a very early age. My mother told me that I had a great aunt who had written many books. She encouraged me to send a few of my stories to “Aunt Olive” and ask her if she thought I could become a writer some day. Aunt Olive wrote back with very encouraging words.
I was about eight at the time, and this was the beginning of a long correspondence. I would send her my latest stories and letters about what was going on in my life. She would respond with comments and suggestions about the stories, and tell me about her own life and books she was working on.
So I kept writing. By the time I was fifteen I was in demand to write skits for the school talent show and “Road Show” skits for the church youth, and had co-founded a satirical school newspaper called The Gargle. I was also the editor of a much classier (and more conventional) newsletter for the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow lodge I was a member of. I continued to assume I’d have a career as a writer — right up until I discovered computers in the groundbreaking form of PLATO.
I didn’t entirely stop my creative writing, but once I was out of high school with its built-in appreciative audience, writing stories definitely took a back seat to writing software. Computer programming turns out to be a lot easier than writing good stories. And more fun, especially when the software you’re building excites people and puts you at the center of a budding online community.
After high school, my correspondence with Aunt Olive continued, but much less frequently. In December 1977, about a year after I’d graduated from college and gone to work for Control Data, a letter from Olive began this way:
It is so good to hear from you and to know that you are busy and, I presume, reasonably happy. I have kept in touch with your activities through your grandmother, to whom I frequently talk, and always ask about you. So I knew in a vague way that you had turned to computer work. I am always sorry when a person with real talent as a writer doesn’t feel that the result is worth the effort– and maybe it isn’t. Unless the sheer pleasure of pounding a typewriter assuages some internal need. So many of the young people I had hopes for have decided that writing is too hard work and that the remuneration is not great enough. Of course it isn’t, and I, for one should realize that. I have never been paid much, but I am one of those silly people who would write even if I was paid nothing–though I have never done that since I grew up as I feel that writers must demand payment for their work. –End of lesson.
Her letter continued with news of two more books that were finished and due to be published in the coming year. She was 83 at the time, and still working.
We exchanged a few more letters after that, the last ones just a few months before her death in 1981. I only have three of her letters to me now; I don’t know what happened to all the rest.
Although I never made it a career, writing has played a large role in my life, and that skill continues to serve me well. I feel indebted to my great aunt Olive for her encouragement and mentorship.
Today is the 121st anniversary of her birth in 1894. Happy birthday, Aunt Olive.
My collection of Olive’s books fills up a bookshelf, but even so, it represents less than a third of the dozens of books she published. Complete lists of Olive W. Burt’s books can be found here and here.
Here, Rosalie Sorrels talks about Olive W. Burt and sings a song she learned from Olive’s book, American Murder Ballads.