Monday, September 8, 2014

Visiting with a favorite Guest

I met a long-lost friend at a book sale recently. He was still wearing the green cloth jacket he's had since 1916! He'd spent his years like a country preacher -- comforting the lonely, admonishing the careless, and praising the best in everyone, but now he was homeless and forgotten.

I lifted him gently from the shelf where he sat with other used books; paid the librarian one dollar, and took him home. What a reunion we had that night. From each faded page he shared a sweet sentiment or fond memory. That's what happens when you open a book of poems by Edgar A. Guest.

Edgar Guest was unique. He joined the Detroit Free-Press as a copy kid in 1895 and tried his hand at reporting, but soon carved a niche as the paper's poet-in-residence. His daily verses debuted in 1900 and continued until his death in 1959 -- that's over 10,000 poems. At the height of his career, his  daily verses were syndicated in 100 newspapers.

But according to former Free-Press publisher Neal Shine, fame and fortune never went to Edgar's head. Shine told me, "I started with the paper in 1950 as a wet-behind-the-ears copy kid. Part of my job was to snatch papers hot off the press and rush them to waiting reporters and editors. I saved the last one for an elderly gentleman in a tiny, cluttered office. He had a bulbous nose and white hair combed straight back. His eyes twinkled, so even when he wasn't smiling he looked happy. He often wore a bow tie and always used an old Underwood typewriter." It was Edgar Guest.

"Edgar was already famous when I met him," Shine continued. "Even though I had the lowest job at the paper, he'd sometimes show me his latest poem and ask what I thought about it. Here was a living legend, a man who'd been friends with all the automotive pioneers including Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers, taking an interest in me. Looking back, I'd describe his personality in one word, warmth. The kindness in Edgar's poems came from his heart. His example got me started on the right foot in the newspaper business."

Has the need for Edgar Guest vanished in the new millennium? Are his folksy verses out of date? Here's a typical poem. Why not read it and decide for yourself.

The little church of Long Ago was not a structure huge,
It had no hired singers and no other subterfuge
To get the people to attend, 'twas just a simple place
Where every Sunday we were told about God's saving grace.
No men of wealth were gathered there to help it with a gift.
The only worldly thing it had -- a mortgage hard to lift.
And somehow, dreaming here today, I wish that I could know
The joy of once more sitting in that church of Long Ago.


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