Towson factors into his work

October 29, 2006|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,Special to The Sun

Robert Ward has established a national reputation with novels such as Red Baker and his latest, Four Kinds of Rain, and through his work in the television series Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, but he has never forgotten his roots in the Baltimore area and the formative period while he was a student at Towson State College.

When Ward, who was born in Baltimore in the mid-1940s, was growing up in Govans and Northwood, he never thought he would go to college.

"Nobody in my family had gone to college, and my parents didn't think I was all that much of a student, so I hadn't even applied to college," he said.

When the family moved to Burke Avenue near what was then the State Teachers College at Towson, he looked out the window at all the female students and decided it might be a good idea to attend. He played lacrosse and was an indifferent student at first.

Enrolling in 1961, he graduated in 1965, and credits his English major for much of his writing success. Ward loved books as a child, and he had a knack at finishing stories for friends.

"When I think back on it all, I was really lucky to go to Towson then. I had three great teachers who took a personal interest in me and convinced me I could do anything I wanted to, if I worked hard enough. They showed me the way to go, and what a rich world literature was and is," Ward said.

"One teacher, the late professor Frank Guess, who taught novel courses and a seminar in Henry James, was brilliant, but very much old-school," Ward said.

"You have talent, but you are so inconsistent. You have to demand more of yourself," he said Guess told him "Guess believed the novel was the highest art form, and he taught it that way," Ward said.

Raymond Franke inspired Ward to understand the short story through American literature courses and also through his friendship.

"He taught me all about Marx and Freud and got me to read Richard Wright and C. Wright Mills and Nelson Algren and [poet Allen] Ginsberg. He was the classic radical teacher, and every time I talked to him it was exciting. ... He made me feel like I could do anything," Ward said.

Another teacher, Don Craver, who lives in Baltimore County, was Ward's expository writing teacher. "He was very tough and made me realize how far I had to go to be a writer. He made me rewrite essays over and over again," Ward said.

He said Craver told him, "Well, it would be nice if you could write one great sentence first."

Of the three influential professors, only Craver is still living, and he and Ward are friends.

The classroom was not the only influence on Ward during his college years.

"I was also being buffeted by the changes going down in America, with Vietnam and the whole hippie thing. All my pals, Mark Reynolds, Rich Moss and Bob Hieronimus, Scott McKenna and Larry Butler on campus, were hippies, the first ones I knew in the city. We got an apartment in Baltimore County on Regester Avenue."

Partying and music rather than studying followed. Ward said he knew if he was ever going to have anything to write about, it was this. "So I began writing stories about our scene," he said.

"The book that came out of my Towson days and post-Towson days was The King of Cards, which was about my own adventures with a dear friend of mine, Jesse Rossman, who literally invented the picture ID cards and lived a wild and crazy life with myself and all our hipster buddies. Most of what happened in the novel - all the wild stuff - really did happen. I had a lot of wild adventures with the guy everyone called `The King' or just `King.'

"He became Jeremy Raines in my book, and we both worked at Sheppard Pratt together as well - and all the things that happened at the mental hospital were real, too."

When Ward won the Homeland Three Arts Award based on the samples from a writing class his senior year at Towson, it got him a scholarship to the University of Arkansas writing program.

"Winning that little award was worth everything to me," Ward said. The prize was $150. "I had zero self-confidence," he said from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Celeste Wesson, a radio producer, and teenage son, Robbie.

Baltimore roots

Observing people and events in Baltimore while growing up, Ward developed a keen sense of dialogue that has served him well in writing for television and movies. He still returns East to visit his mother in Westminster, who lives with her second husband.

Ward's father is deceased, but he lived to see his son's success.

At 27, Ward was professor of creative writing at Hobart and William Smith colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

His career led from professor to journalist, a career move in which, he said, he learned many lessons.

"I was a magazine journalist, and it taught me the same lessons [that apply to newspaper writers]: get the story, get the right details, tell the story economically. That's what all good writing does. All the rest is for the professors."

Ward wrote for the Haight- Ashbury Tribune and the Baltimore Free Press.

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