Opening the Book that is Gary Schmidt
Award-winning author, supportive colleague and dedicated father are chapters in the life of this Calvin English professor
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

Gary Schmidt at The Old Buck Farm

The hero was born in 1957 in New York: in Hicksville, New York.

“I was the quiet kid who never gave anybody any trouble, always, like, three years behind in fashion,” narrated Gary D. Schmidt, Calvin professor of English, medievalist, country squire, devoted husband, author of six children and of 30-plus books — notable among them Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which was named a 2005 John Newbery Honor Book — and a man well-suited to the hero role, if you believe his colleagues.

Their shared opinion is neatly understated by Calvin professor of English William Vande Kopple, thus: “It would be rather hard to write an exposé, I think.”

In Hicksville, a bedroom community for Manhattan (where his father worked), Schmidt, born German and English and raised Baptist, grew up with people distinctly unlike himself. “All of my friends were Irish Catholic or Jewish, and there were some years I was the only Protestant kid in the entire class,” he said. In truth, when December came ’round, and his friends went off early to prepare for the holidays at Hebrew school or catechism, Schmidt was often the only person of any faith tradition left sitting in class.

Which just made things interesting, he said: “It really meant that there were all of these other traditions that came in. And back then, it wasn’t a problem in public schools. There were Christmas trees up and menorahs up. I can remember making menorahs to hang on the Christmas trees. It was just part of the holidays.”

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"Of Duchesses and Sin Eaters: The Pattern of Story"
Schmidt's lecture at the January Series, 1996 (Real Audio broadcast)

Festival of Faith & Writing
April 20-22, 2006

Schmidt danced the hora at his friends’ bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs (“To see your friends standing up front of a synagogue and reading from the Torah — that was a big deal.”) and held long discussions about the Holocaust. Come summer, he lit out for camp in the Catskills. Sunshine Acres was a Baptist camp for inner-city kids from Brooklyn, and right down the road was Rov Tov, a camp for Hasidic youth. “There were enormous tensions between those communities,” Schmidt said in explanation of the rock-throwing that sometimes occurred. He once tried to bring the two camps together for a Bible discussion. “That was my one attempt at ecumenism,” he said, “and it was shouted down.”

Despite these tensions, the camp was an idyll, where Schmidt worked his way up through the ranks from maintenance man through counselor to program director: “My junior high and high school years, I lived for those summers. The excitement of being independent, good friends, good work, up in the mountains: What could be better? You could lay on your back and watch hawks play with thermal winds — never moving their wingtips. And,” he added at the right point in the story, “there was a great bookstore up there.” He became a collector early on, buying his first Pilgrim’s Progress for 8 cents.

Prof. Gary SchmidtSchmidt attended Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and he pondered a career as a lawyer or town manager or soldier. “It was funny,” he said of the last option. “I never thought of it as the rigors of a military school. I thought of it as a career on board a ship. That seemed really exotic or amazing.” In his senior year, just before taking his LSAT, he experienced a vocational sea change. “All along, I was taking English from amazing professors. So I switched to an English major first semester senior year and decided to go to graduate school.”

He also met Anne, a fellow Gordon student, on Nov. 1, 1978, on top of the John Hancock Tower in Boston. The pair got engaged five months later and were married Dec. 22, 1979. Together they attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I didn’t like grad school too much,” Schmidt said. “I hated how important the political workings and chicanery were.”

Six years later, having earned an MA in English literature and a Ph.D. in medieval literature, the hero went in quest of a job. Though he had no plan of working in Christian education, Schmidt interviewed at a small Reformed institution in western Michigan (“When I first came, it was winter, snowy. I thought, ‘What in the world am I doing here? It’s so snowy.’”) and heard a peculiar siren song coming from the English department. It was the combined voices of the English faculty singing a birthday hymn to one of their own.

“I think anybody who walks into his class here at Calvin will have the experience of a lifetime, whether it’s children’s lit or Chaucer, because of his wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.”
— Nancy Hull, English professor

“You come out of a Big Ten school,” he said, “and you come to a department where there are people singing birthday hymns to each other. I mean, that’s a huge difference just in mood and mutual support and pleasure in each others’ work.”

Schmidt quickly settled into his teaching duties and to the two children (James and Kathleen) he and Anne brought from Illinois; they gradually added four more (Rebecca, David, Meg and Ben). “Even now — especially if I meet someone — they say, ‘You have six kids?’ And they can’t believe that. It’s as though we’re some sort of 19th century pioneer family. They can’t imagine that we have six kids,” Schmidt said. “But for me, I can’t imagine having one or two.” The family eventually moved to the Alto farmhouse belonging to the Old Buck Farm, named for the stagecoach driver who once owned the place. Schmidt chops his own firewood. He also writes.

His first work of fiction was a grad school diversion: “You’re writing this dissertation … and reading the church fathers,” he recalled. “One night, really late at night, I was working on Latin prayers, and I was sick of it, so I sat down and wrote the first page of a novel for children. And it was terrible. It was really derivative and had no new ideas. And I sent it away, and it was rejected, for which I’m very grateful today.”

His other books, whether solo efforts or co-authored, were more successful. Early in his career, Schmidt was pressed into service as a teacher of children’s literature, and his early literary efforts circled that field. He co-wrote, with English professor emeritus Charlotte Otten, a book on the voice of the narrator in children’s literature and with English professor Donald Hettinga a book on the re-telling of folk tales. He wrote books about children’s authors and illustrators Robert McCloskey, Robert Lawson and Katherine Paterson. “I loved and still love Katherine Paterson’s work,” he said about the author he now counts as a friend. “I think she’s the most important children’s writer of the 20th century.”

The Sin EaterIn 1998 Schmidt wrote The Sin Eater, a novel for young adults that he sent to Paterson’s editor, Virginia Buckley. “You start with the best,” he explained, “and she took it. It was a miracle.”

Around this time, Schmidt also experienced a miracle of another kind. “It was 10 years ago — ’96, I guess. I had gone to the doctor and they had said infection, infection. And they had given me some medication which helped a little bit,” Schmidt recalled. “I was actually in the lab theater, and I was watching the mystery plays, and suddenly I knew this was a lot more than an infection.” It was lymphatic cancer.

“You hear all the percentages, and they’re not fun to hear,” he continued. The routine of chemotherapy helped him beat the disease, though, and provided him with manifold sources of inspiration: his fellow patients. “Maybe that’s why today in my job, I cannot stand whining or fussing,” he said. “I mean these were people who were going to die. They were hooked up to machines with stuff oozing out of them, and I never, never once heard them complain or fuss.”

Mara's Stories
In God's Hands
Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
Spring: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

Ultimately, the experience shaped his writing career, he said. “I knew then that I would have two tracks. One would be an academic book all the time, and the other one would be creative. And that’s what I’ve stayed with.” Schmidt’s output remains as varied as his interests. He has written textbooks and picture books, biography and fantasy, folk tales and historical fiction. The Jewish influences of his childhood echo in books such as In God’s Hands, a collaboration with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Mara’s Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness, a collection of Holocaust-era stories. He has also co-edited, with English professor Susan Felch, a popular series of seasonal biographies (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter).

“What Gary has emphasized is adding to the culture and creating things for the culture — not just taking the Reformed view, sitting back and taking the culture apart and viewing it,” Vande Kopple said. “He sees himself as fulfilling the cultural mandate by creating things and adding to the culture.”

Schmidt also continued writing novels for young adults … and along came Lizzie.

Lizzie Bright - select cover for book reviewLizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, the story of an unlikely friendship between an African-American girl and a white preacher’s son, is told against the backdrop of an actual historical event: the eradication of a black community in 1912 Maine. The story of Malaga, an island off the coast of Phippsburg, Maine, whose African-American residents were evicted to make room for urban development, was discovered by Anne Schmidt when the family was on vacation. It took Gary Schmidt three years to write the story of Lizzie Bright and Turner Buckminster against the larger history of Phippsburg.

In January of 2005, while in Boston for the New England Saints Interim, Schmidt learned that Lizzie had been named both a John Newbery Honor Book and Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association (ALA) — a pair of the most prestigious honors in the world of children’s literature.

Schmidt and Calvin professor of English Nancy Hull sneaked into the ALA annual meeting to hear the awards announced and to witness the Lizzie book jacket flashing on the screen. “They said, ‘Lizzie Bright,’ and the image came up,” Hull reminisced, “and I heard him say under his breath, ‘That’ll do.’ And that’s just Gary.” The book has since won the Thumbs Up! Award from the Michigan Library Association, the Lupine Award from the Maine State Library Association and has been named a 2005 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book.

“I know it’s not real, but it was nice,” Schmidt says of the Lizzie hullabaloo. “The Newbery Honor or the Printz Honor doesn’t help at all for the next manuscript. And actually, I think that for six or seven months after winning that, it was hard to decide what project I was going to work on next.”

"I think that his writing is also generous. It doesn’t avoid suffering and sadness, but it’s always looking for the goodness of the world, the abundance of kindness and love and beauty.” — Susan Felch

Yet he writes. “I think that the projects that he’s working on are never far from his mind, so that when he’s chopping wood or shoveling snow or building a fire, he’s writing,” Anne Schmidt observed. “And I think that talking with the kids about their lives, what makes them laugh, helps him in his novels — inspires him.”

Felch reflected on the defining quality of her four-time collaborator: “Gary is the soul of generosity, the model of generosity. He’s always looking for ways to collaborate with people on writing projects, and it’s not as if he needs someone to help him write or help him finish. He’s just generous that way. … I think that his writing is also generous. It doesn’t avoid suffering and sadness, but it’s always looking for the goodness of the world, the abundance of kindness and love and beauty.”

She pictured Schmidt at his most heroic. “It’s not uncommon to walk into his office and hear, ‘Did you see this?’ and it’s never something he’s written. It’s never something about him. It’s this infectious joy for living.”

— Myrna Anderson is Calvin's staff writer