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Arts and Entertainment

2016 Quill Award Winner Inspired by Mark Twain

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journalism.missouri.edu
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The Writers Hall of Fame Quill Award will be handed out this weekend to a journalist and author who hails from Hannibal, Missouri.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more.

Ron Powers began his career as a sports reporter at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, moved to the Chicago Sun-Times where he worked as a television critic, wrote books, including two about Mark Twain and worked for a time as a commentator on CBS News Sunday Morning. 

Powers said when he was growing up in Hannibal, there were signs of Twain everywhere.

"You couldn't turn around without seeing a statue of Mark Twain.  You had lunch at the Mark Twain Burger Bar.  You went to the movies at the Tom Sawyer Theater.  Maybe you had a milk shake at the Huck Finn Drive In, and you could see his silhouette on delivery trucks like the backs of produce trucks," he said.

He remembers that cars with license plates from all over would line up on Saturdays outside Twains’s boyhood home on Hill Street.

"And we thought, 'they're all coming to see our town,' and all because of this one great character," he said.

That left an enormous impression on Powers, and he developed a lifelong fascination with Mark Twain.  His books on Twain include “Mark Twain:  A Life” and “Dangerous Water:  A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain.”  He said he began writing Twain’s biography after “years of kind of running away from it.”

"Because he's so big and there are so many dimensions to this man, you know, layers that we haven't even fully explored yet," he said.

Things like his imagination, his genius, his passion, things that happened to him and places he traveled.

According to Powers, Twain was so much more than a humorist and the author of “Huckleberry Finn.”  And, he knew that so many others had already written biographies of Twain.

"So, my first thought when my literary agent said, 'why don't you do this?' was 'stop looking at me.' (laughs).  What if I write it and the reviews come out 'Little Ronnie Powers of Hannibal, Missouri screws up life of Mark Twain.'  I just didn't want to live with that," he said, laughing.

But he noticed once he began reading those biographies that they focused not so much on telling the story about his life but on diagnosing it.  Powers believes Twain was victimized by the deconstruction era of the 1980s.

"Which it was very cool to take a famous person, lay him or her out on the operating table and look at the parts and try to figure out what made them tick.  Why were they a genius?  Were they a genius?  Maybe they were tricksters," he said.

So, Powers decided to finally be the one to put Twain “on stage and use his letters and his diaries and the books themselves” the way a novelist would use dialogue and not falsify anything.

"But let him walk through the 19th century and portray him as a character in sort of a grand opera," he said.

Powers also won an Emmy Award for his work on CBS Sunday Morning.  He spent five years working with Charles Kuralt as a commentator about television.

"How I got there I can't remember, but, by golly, I got there, and I would walk into that studio every Sunday and there he would be--Charles Kuralt.  He used language in a way almost like Mark Twain.  I always thought of Charles as a kind of southern mystic who loved the way words sounded and the way words felt on his tongue," he said.

He also won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his critical writing about television in 1972.  He said, back then it was much easier to be a TV critic than it is today.

"There were three networks, and each network had a station in the big cities.  There was a public TV station and usually there was an independent--not affiliated with any network.  So, you know, the range of topics was small, and so there wasn't that enormous responsibility to pick and choose," he said.

At the same time, he said, the 70s were a turbulent time in American life with the Vietnam War, student protests in the streets and demonstrations on college campuses.  So, when you wrote about television, according to Powers, it was really writing about a window on the American experience.

He was one of four TV critics in Chicago at the time.

"So we had a tremendous competition going on, a friendly competition, but we wrote to see who was the best TV critic in town.  And that was kind of an old fashioned newspaper ethic that kept us all going" he said.

Powers said, although it sounds like “charming modesty,” he’s been very lucky in his professional life.  He was hired right out of the journalism school at the University of Missouri in 1963 by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

"And those were the final years in which a college graduate would actually experience the newspapers coming to him or her.  They would send recruiters to the campus," he said.

In 1969 he went to the Chicago Sun-Times and got in on what he calls “the last great era of old-time…hell for leather newspaper competition.”

Powers said he’s always had an instinct for when it’s time to go, and after winning the Pulitzer Prize he decided to reinvent himself.  That began his career writing books and also his stint on CBS.

He has some advice for beginning journalists:  be true to yourself and when in doubt, head for the truth.

"The whole American tradition of journalism, and Sam Clemens, Mark Twain, was one of the pioneers, was as a form of truth telling, you know, of what was reporting what was happening out of your own direct experience for the benefit of people who aren't there, and there's something very noble in that," he said.

The 2016 Quill Award Gala will be held Saturday night (4/2) at Highland Springs Country Club.  Proceeds will benefit the Writers Hall of Fame Student Scholarship Fund.  Find out more here.