My Uncle Wede? Feet of Clay?

Feb 7, 2015 | 3 comments

 

Willard Espy, 1975

Willard Espy, 1975

When it comes to writing and storytelling, especially about Oysterville, my uncle Willard Espy has always been my role model. Even before Willard got into the book writing business and certainly long before my own writing interests became focused on this beloved little hamlet, Willard (or ‘Wede’ as the family usually called him) was my own, personal shining star.

Partly, it was because I considered his life romantic. He had gone to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in 1930 and eked out a living there as an artist’s model. He returned to the states and worked for a string of small newspapers in California’s San Joaquin Valley during the depths of the Great Depression. He went to New York City, lived in Greenwich Village, worked for an avant-garde magazine and eventually went to work at the Readers’ Digest.

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Willard at Work, 1945

That was in 1941 just about the time I began first grade. During my most impressionable years I would hear about the interesting people Wede met in the course of his job with the Digest. His title was Public Relations Manager and part of his responsibility was to ghost write the back cover of the magazine which was always a testimonial by a famous personage. Over the years he interviewed folks even I, a little girl in far off California, had heard of – Groucho Marx, Albert Einstein, Lillian Gish.

In addition to all those romantic aspects to his life (he was even married to an artist/writer and they had four daughters within three years!) I was very early aware of Wede’s work ethic. No matter what else was happening in his life, Wede wrote. Beyond his everyday job (which, itself, involved writing), Wede wrote stories and articles and novels and news pieces. It was a lifelong habit. It wasn’t until after he had begun to collect social security and had semi-retired that his first book was published. There would follow many more.

Oysterville by Willard Espy

Oysterville by Willard Espy

Yes, he was a wonderful role model. But just recently I’ve begun to understand that he was not a perfect role model – certainly not in the matter of historical accuracy. Not that ‘historian’ was ever one of his claims to fame, but he was a genealogist and was meticulous in his searches for forebears back in those days before modern aides such as the internet. And he was a superlative storyteller, especially in the matter of family history.

So, it has come as quite a shock to me to find that several of the stories told in his Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa’s Village are riddled with inaccuracies. Take the story about how his grandparents met and married – that in 1869 R.H. Espy traveled to Salem with Lewis A. Loomis (later founder of the local narrow gauge railroad) to choose a teacher for the Oysterville School.  Loomis didn’t come to Oysterville from New York until 1872, though his brother Ed was here. Wrong Loomis, Wede!

And take the part of the story where the young (eighteen-year-old) teacher Julia boards at the Stevens Hotel where there are four unmarried daughters about her age. Not! The two eldest Stevens girls were married and long gone; the two youngest were nine and eleven – hardly competing for the eye of bachelor R. H. Espy.

Historical facts, notwithstanding, Willard was a consummate storyteller. He’s still my role model. It’s hardly his fault that I get hung up on the details. But I do wish he were still around so I could chide him… just a little.

3 Comments

  1. Linda Schell

    Four years ago I read Oysterville while on a cruise. The true story guides the reader from one family generation to another and then another, giving the reader a sense of security and place. Many times I have recommended this book to friends and family.

    Reply
  2. Stephanie Frieze

    I still want to see your book about Willard in print!

    Reply
    • sydney

      Me too! lol

      Reply

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