Ex-AACC official enjoys life as writer in central New York

Since retiring in 1992, Jim Atwell has written 500 essays for local newspapers and published many in a book illustrated by his wife

December 02, 2005|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Things have changed for Jim Atwell since he took early retirement in 1992 from his administrative job at Anne Arundel Community College and headed off to the tiny hamlet of Fly Creek, N.Y., to mourn the loss of his first wife and to regroup.

Today, he lives in the 210-year-old farmhouse on 40 acres in central New York that he and Gwen Vosburgh Atwell, his first wife, purchased for their retirement. He manages the small farm, writes a weekly column for the local paper, the Cooperstown Cryer, is active in his adopted community - he serves on the cemetery board, among other things - and is happily married again, to artist Anne Geddes-Atwell.

The latest result of the Atwells' 8 1/2 -year marriage is the publication of their first joint commercial venture: From Fly Creek - Celebrating Life in Leatherstocking Country, a book he wrote and she illustrated. (Leatherstocking refers to a series of stories by 19th-century novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who grew up 15 miles from Fly Creek in Cooperstown. The series includes The Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans.)

From Fly Creek is a compilation of newspaper essays that Atwell, 67, has written for two local papers -The Freeman's Journal and the Cooperstown Cryer - since his arrival in Fly Creek.

Bill Gates (not that Bill Gates), founding editor of the Cryer and a former supervisor of the town of Otsego, which includes Fly Creek, hired Atwell to write for the paper. Now semiretired and living in Sun Lakes, Ariz., Gates says that one look at Atwell's academic credentials will tell you that he's an intellectual "but only in the best sense of the word."

"But he's more, and that comes through immediately in his writings," Gates says. "He celebrates people and ... the simple wonders of rural life. Everywhere he looks, he sees what is decent and funny and poignant about people. He is blessed with a clear writing style, but it is that exceptional observational knack that moves his writings out of the category of chronicling rural life into something bigger and more universal.

"Jim takes a cosmic view; he does it the way he approaches life - with respect and gentleness, with humor and intelligence ... and with barnyard mud on his boots."

When he was 12 years old, Atwell composed, published and delivered a newspaper to his Annapolis neighbors in Murray Hill. When he was 18, he joined the Christian Brotherhood for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience as Brother Andrew (Atwell says he still responds when someone calls out the name "Andrew.") The Brothers, founded in 17th-century France, put no limit on the education they would pay for, so Atwell went to school.

Atwell earned a bachelor's in English, a master's in theology and a second master's in English.

His doctorate in English, from Catholic University in Washington, came after he left the order.

Atwell says he doesn't regret "for a minute" the 13 years he spent with the Christian Brotherhood.

"I was in the company, by and large, of bright, witty, idealistic, dedicated men," he says. He has good friends from that time, inside and outside the order.

After teaching English at Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore County, Atwell spent the remainder of his 25 years in education on staff at AACC, rising from instructor to chairman of the English department, to dean of arts and sciences in 1980, and 10 years later to vice president for academic affairs.

Trish Casey-Whiteman, associate vice president for learning at AACC, met Atwell in the 1980s when the two were working on doctorates in English at Catholic University. Already planning a move from Tacoma Park to Annapolis, she secured a teaching internship at AACC through Atwell, who was then chairman of the English department.

"He was a fantastic teacher," says Casey-Whiteman, who moved from teaching into administration at AACC in 1994. "He was known among the faculty for his eloquence. He was well-spoken and he could write, qualities that helped make his formal presentations clear and persuasive. His writing has a kind of wisdom that gives it weight."

Just before he moved to New York, Atwell volunteered for an afternoon of bell ringing for the Salvation Army. His partner turned out to be Anne Geddes, another member of the Annapolis Rotary Club. Geddes, now 62, had taught art at AACC, as well as at the University of Maryland, and was artist-in-residence at St. John's College in Annapolis.

Atwell recalls that she was so "wonderfully good-humored" about standing outside in the freezing cold that he asked her for coffee afterward.

That cup of coffee led to a five-year courtship that culminated in an "elopement to the back field" of the farm where the couple was married Sept. 14, 1997, surrounded by a small group of family, friends and a few select sheep. Local farmer Arrie Hecox was Atwell's best man. Cousin-in-law Tom Deason was in charge of crowd control, says Geddes-Atwell.

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