you, the columnist
By Dave Lieber
Columnist, The Dallas Morning News
In his typical Midwestern self-effacing manner, former NSNC President Bill Tammeus hides his autobiography inside a grander study of modern America based on its early baby boomer years. His new book centers mostly in the 1950s, when middle Americans such as Tammeus developed a value system that, he writes, affected the way we did things for the next 70 years.
Until I read Tammeus’ latest book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, my most poetic learning about Midwestern values came from one of my favorite passages in The Great Gatsby. Tammeus uses lyrical writing that’s poetic to describe his middle-American past and present through the most personal terms. The planted rows on farms, he writes, are “agriculture’s rhythmic patterns, its lines and angles, its tacks and turns, its repetitious calculus, its sensible drillings and expectant hopings.”
His Woodstock is not the Woodstock of the rock mega-event, but Woodstock, Illinois, where bespectacled young Billy came from a family of farmer grandparents, an Extension agent dad, a substitute teacher mom. His life experience was the opposite of what happened on Max Yasgur’s other Woodstock farm. The goings on at the Tammeus family farms were no wavy gravy. This Woodstock was Republican, white, Protestant and conformed.
Except when Tammeus says it wasn’t.
In this book, he dishes, especially on himself, surprisingly so, to challenge the very values of the wholesome world in which he grows up. He balances images of straight-laced old school papers, which he reproduces from his childhood and photos of his old schools, still there, with his told tales of unWoodstock-like moral depravity. Well, not that bad. He and his friends hid girlie magazines and cigarettes, of all places, behind the furnace in the basement of his Presbyterian church.
Considering that Tammeus, a former star columnist at The Kansas City Star who was syndicated nationally by The New York Times, is considered one of America’s foremost daily religion writers on his daily Faith Matters blog, this is no small thing. But it gets worse, or better depending on your outlook for the sensational when the normally shy and reluctant-to-talk-about-himself Tammeus (in typical Midwestern fashion) unleashes in a way I’ve never before seen in his public persona.
Tammeus was 1992-94 president of the NSNC and hosted its 1995 Kansas City conference. Fantastically Midwestern, he is an unlikely person to discuss his personal life in stark open-to-the-public terms. His biggest exception took place after Sept. 11, 2001, when his beloved nephew Karleton Fyfe was murdered on the first plane that smashed into the World Trade Center.
Here, though, Tammeus, while thoroughly examining the growth of political, social and moral values that would be passed on, uses his own life as an example. How so? In one memorable example, he writes about his first wife and what happened 20 years ago:
My wife entered into a second relationship before fixing or ending her marriage to me. As one who takes commitments seriously – especially one entered into ‘before God and these witnesses’ – I found this one of the most painful experiences of my life, particularly because the man with whom she was having an affair was our pastor, whom I had helped bring to our church in my role as a member of the pastor search committee. It was an outrageous betrayal on the part of both of them, though, of course, no marriage falls apart without contributions from both spouses.
I share that to show the brutal honesty of this book and the clear writing throughout. The little town where he grew up, the town that performed so well in the movie Groundhog Day as the movie’s main set, the place that Tammeus loves and lived in and where he learned how to love and live represents the big piece of home in all of us.
That’s why this book is worth reading. Woodstock is everyone’s home. Tammeus shares his home and helps us understand our own. His book strikes home in so many ways.
Note: Amazon.com offers the print version here and in a less-expensive electronic version here. Barnes and Noble customers can find the book in both print and e-versions here. If you buy the print version from Bill directly the price is $25, and he will autograph your copy. For more details, contact Bill on Twitter at @BillTammeus.
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This column originally was published in the May 2014 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.