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Theresa Potter worked alongside author James Michener as his assistant and helped him with 11 of his books.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Theresa Potter sits outside John Wesley Hall at Ferrum College with the book that was dedicated to her called “Creatures of the Kingdom,” written by the Pulitzer-prize winning author James Michener.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Theresa Potter keeps some of Pulitzer-prize winning author James Michener’s books in her office, including “Creatures of the Kingdom,” “Alaska,” “Iberia,” and “Mexico.” She assisted Michener on 11 books during his writing career.
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Theresa Potter holds up a photograph from the time when she was Pulitzer-prize winning author James Michener's assistant (center right). Potter assisted Michener on 11 different books in the time she worked with him.
Monday, July 8, 2013
FERRUM — Theresa Potter knew she would fail the typing test.
She averaged about 45 words-per-minute. According to the job description, the famous writer’s assistant would be expected to type nearly twice that fast.
Potter already was a “huge fan” of James Michener, the prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of voluminous historical novels. And she was determined.
“I had to pull strings to get the job,” she said.
Potter worked then for the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., as an assistant in the provost’s office. The university’s president, Edward “Tad” Foote, had met Michener and the author’s third wife, Mari, on an Alaskan cruise. Michener was working then to complete his novel “Alaska.” Foote asked the author to consider coming to the University of Miami to begin research for a book that would become “Caribbean,” published in 1989.
“I came to learn that [Michener] was bombarded by people who wanted him to write about their slice of the world,” Potter said.
She first met Michener face-to-face in December 1986. He was 79 years old.
“I was so nervous. He took my hands in both of his hands and he said, ‘I am so happy to meet you, dear friend, and I am going to count on you to see that I don’t make too many mistakes,’ ” Potter recalled.
“I felt his warmth immediately,” she said.
Today, Potter lives in Patrick County and works at Ferrum College, where she is a special assistant to President Jennifer Braaten and a liaison to the college’s board of trustees.
During a recent interview, Potter acknowledged that she feels some sadness that Michener’s name and writings seem to have faded from public consciousness.
She continued to work as an assistant to Michener even after he and Mari left Coral Gables in 1989 and returned to Texas. He died there in October 1997.
The nation’s major newspapers reacted to his death with news obituaries.
An article in The Los Angeles Times included a quote from Potter: “He knows everybody from the Pope on down,” she told the newspaper. “He’ll talk to a plumber just as he’ll talk to Bill Clinton.”
The same article quoted the newspaper’s books editor at the time: “James Michener’s death diminishes American letters,” observed Steve Wasserman. “He was the most democratic of authors, believing passionately in the promise of America, with a profound love of its people.”
But the articles also highlighted the criticism that accompanied Michener’s writing career, referencing, for example, “cardboard characters” and “dreary dialogue.” A London newspaper suggested that the author’s tendency to include reams of historical detail sometimes diminished the work: “Its intent was to edify; its effect was to stupefy.”
Yet Michener was a wildly popular author.
Potter said fan mail poured in from readers who savored his work.
“People would write in that they would not read the last chapter because they didn’t want the book to end,” she said.
“Critics were not kind to him,” she said. “Eventually, I came to understand that was due to his popularity. And I believe, having read all of his books and having helped type 11 of them, he was a true literary genius. No question about it. And he was one of the smartest people I have ever met.”
Michener rarely visited the campus of the University of Miami, she said. Instead, he wrote in a condominium he and Mari lived in just across the street. Potter shared an office on campus with John Kings, a longtime Michener aide.
The author was a two-finger typist who worked on a manual typewriter. Each weekday, and some weekend days too, Potter walked across the street to retrieve Michener’s latest pages. The author would literally “cut and paste” sections of text during revisions he completed before handing over the pages to Potter.
“He was very frugal. He bought Elmer’s Glue and would dilute it,” she said.
Potter would re-type the pages into an early generation PC and send completed floppy discs to Random House, Michener’s publisher.
She and Kings would provide research materials to the author, who packed his novels with facts.
“He agonized over every word that went into one of his books,” she said.
On rare occasions, Potter would spot a factual error or anachronistic description. In one novel’s draft, Michener wrote about a house selling in the urban Northeast at a price so low it lacked credibility.
Michener’s books and the plays and movies that followed made him a millionaire and a philanthropist. But money did not motivate his work, Potter said.
“Writing was his life and that’s what he did and what he loved,” she said.
When Michener died, The New York Times reported that he “was about 90.” The lack of certitude about his age reflected the ambiguous circumstances of Michener’s birth and early childhood. He was raised by Mabel Michener, a “poor young widow,” according to The New York Times, along with “other children who came and went from her home in Doylestown, Pa.”
He graduated from Swarthmore College and during World War II served in the U.S. Navy in the Solomon Islands. His first book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948 and inspired the hit musical “South Pacific.”
Decades later, Potter helped him select from previous writings a collection of stories about animals. It was ultimately titled “Creatures of the Kingdom — Stories of Animals and Nature,” and was first published in 1993. Michener wrote, “This anthology is dedicated to Theresa Potter, my longtime secretary, who conceived the idea and made the selections.”
Potter was born in Rock Island, Ill., but grew up in Southern California near Los Angeles. She and her husband, Doug, raised three sons. In 1995, the couple purchased a 92-acre farm in Patrick County and moved there in 1999 after Doug retired.
That same year Potter landed a job at Ferrum College. She said that Bev Fitzpatrick, then the college’s vice president for institutional advancement and now executive director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, went to bat for her. She helped advance a capital campaign.
“She has done an incredible job for Ferrum,” Fitzpatrick said. “She brought so much dignity to the job and we’ve loved her ever since.”
Meanwhile, G.L. Dybwad, a co-founder of the James A. Michener Society, acknowledged in a recent email that some of the author’s work is no longer extensively read.
“Perhaps this is because his lifestyle and philanthropy are not evident in his works, and because he was not a larger-than-life character in his daily life like Hemingway or Fitzgerald,” Dybwad suggested.
Karen Groseclose, secretary of the James A. Michener Society, estimated the society has about 135 members. Her husband, David, devoted a total of about seven years, working on and off, to producing a bibliography of Michener’s extensive writings. Karen said the length of many of Michener’s novels might discourage young people from reading his work.
Potter said she believes Michener’s genius will someday be more clearly recognized. Decades passed before writer Jane Austen’s brilliance was celebrated, she said.
“I think he will be revered and his books will stand the test of time,” Potter said.
Michener was “a lifelong student of human nature,” she said, a humble and self-deprecating man who was a keen and focused listener.
“If you sat down with him for five minutes, you were in another world,” Potter said.
She said she is deeply grateful for the years she knew Michener and assisted his work.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and a tremendous privilege.”
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