Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Inaugural speaker for Pat Scales lecture series at University of Montevallo

On 4/19/18, I had the honor of being the inaugural speaker for a lecture series at the University of Montevallo. It's outside Birmingham, Alabama, a city I'd visited for the first time only a month before, for (elementary) school visits. The university used to be all-female; males began to attend through the G.I. Bill (apparently all-male and coed campuses did not have enough slots to accommodate the number of men returning from WWII).

The lecture was part of a larger event called the Forte Festival of Creativity. Its theme was "Heroes and Heroines."

In a case of near-perfect timing, the day of the lecture was 80 years and a day after Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 (April 18, 1938). A lovely group of educators, students, and other community members attended.

I've not met Pat Scales but I hope to. She attended Montevallo and went on to become an advocate for intellectual freedom and a crusader against censorship. I delivered the lecture in a room in the library newly created to house Pat's generous donation of papers and children's books.

The room was bedecked with fantastic vintage Book Week posters. I wanted every one of them.

I was further heartened to learn that Montevallo attracts students who did not feel they could be themselves out loud in high school in the South, such as those who identify as LGBTQ. The campus was clearly open-minded and artistic.

And not-so-clearly haunted. 

Around 9 p.m. the night before my lecture, I was taken to where I'd spend the night: the King House.

Note: This is not what it looks like at night.

Built in 1823, it was one of the first houses in Alabama with glass windowsIt sits in the middle of campus where it has developed a reputation for being a hotbed of paranormal activity. One of those ghost-hunting shows filmed there…and picked up readings.

The woman who showed me around the house did not bring this up on her own, but when I asked, she was more than happy to share stories…even though I was about to stay there by myself. Again, I brought it upon myself!

She said grown men have refused to step foot in the house. One guest saw a black faceless humanoid form hovering over the very bed I would sleep in. A notable author called campus police at 1 a.m. and asked to be taken to a hotel (the nearest of which was, I believe, about 30 miles away). Some have reported seeing Mr. King himself walking his former property with a lantern, perhaps looking for the gold he'd allegedly buried centuries ago.

I was told I may see Mr. King (the gentleman behind me) later that night…and not in a painting.

Even though I am interested in ghosts and have written about ghosts and have long wanted to experience something ghostly, I was a bit spooked staying alone in that house. I admit I left on the downstairs hall light and the bathroom light on the second floor, adjacent to the room in which I would sleep. Scaredy-cat and Mr. King.

Around midnight, when I was still up, I heard one unusual bang downstairs, as if someone had dropped something heavy or slammed a book against a wall. I did not go investigate. 

Morning came without other additional incident—at least any I was aware of. In the light of day, I did a walk-through and did not see anything on the ground that could have fallen and made the sound I heard.

This was both fortunate and unfortunate.

One of the students who heard me present saw my social media post and reacted in charming disbelief.

King House is not the only campus location with ghost sightings. In 1908, a student named Condie Cunningham caught on fire in her dorm room and ran down the hallway in panic, later dying from her injury. Some have reported that she is still around—and that her face "burned" into the door of what was her room. The door has been removed and is now stored in the campus archives.

Wondering about the possible implications of taking a photo of it, I hesitated at first. Then I figured that because I survived King House, maybe I'm not an unwelcome presence among the unexplained of Montevallo.

Thank you again to Anna Mary Williford for inviting me to Montevallo. Your introduction humbled and tickled me; thank you for allowing me to quote part of it (lightly edited):

I have been at the University of Montevallo for just over a year now. Prior to that, I was a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg in Pennsylvania where I had the pleasure of coordinating their annual children's literature conference, which is where I met Marc. About a year before the conference, I received the first of what would be many emails with subject lines like, "Batman at Pitt Greensburg in 2015?" or "Batman, you know. Superman, you know. Nobleman, you will know." And I would think to myself, "Who is this guy who will not stop emailing me?!" I booked him as one of our keynote speakers for May 2015, a decision that I've never regretted!

But I will admit that at the time, I assumed his persistence was simply because he was doing his job, part of which was promoting the books he'd written. After hearing Marc speak, though, I realized that presenting his work was so much more than "part of the job" to him. Sharing his research with a wider audience was an essential part of his quest for the truth about Batman to finally be acknowledged. For a lot of authors, simply publishing Bill the Boy Wonder might have been enough—the book was out there now, people could read it and learn about what happened for themselves. But that wasn't enough for Marc, who wants to personally deliver his message to as many people as possible. I'm pretty sure that he set out to turn every student, teacher, librarian, or conference attendee who crossed his path into a soldier in his army for justice for the legacy of Batman, and I think that's exactly what he's accomplished over the past few years.

So when I watched Batman & Bill, I had to laugh at the fact that the first word Marc's wife uses to describe him is "persistent," as he is definitely one of the most persistent people I've ever met, but in a good way! That persistence is why he's here with us today, in more ways than one.

That's the passion Marc has for his work, and it will come across when you hear him speak in just a minute. On the subject of passionate folks, Pat Scales unfortunately couldn't join us this afternoon. However, she is familiar with—and a fan of!—Marc's work, and I am certain she'd be pleased with the fact that the inaugural speaker in the lecture series named for her is someone who shares many of the same values she's championed throughout her career: the desire to see the truth prevail; the importance of literacy and education; a calling to correct injustice, whether that injustice comes in the form of a banned or challenged book or a buried legacy just waiting to be uncovered and brought to light.

And thank you again to the plethora of Montevallo staff and students for extending me such a warm welcome.

If I come back, I want another shot at the King House…

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