Rockford Native Mines His Past For First Book

Jun 6, 2014

Gary Lawrence is a Rockford native who uses familiar sights and people in his fiction. In Baffled and Other Stories, Lawrence takes us to the "On the Waterfront" and "Summerfest" music festivals.

One of his characters works for an aerospace firm named "Sundstrom" (a nod to his former employer Sundstrand). And two stories are set in Rockford's West High School, now West Middle School, during the early 1970s. 

"Wrestleback" is about a wrestling match between two students before the entire student body. Former team members and fans might remember West High's home tights with a warrior's face on the hip and diagonal black stripe across the chest. This is worn by the winner of the coin toss, a white student named Miller. The "away" tights were red, in this story worn by a black student named Malcolm.

The match reflects the racial tensions of that time, according to Lawrence, a former team member, who has Miller enter the gym first with his coach:

The bleachers were full -- with a twist. All the white students were on one side of the gym. All the black students were on the other side. As the crowd saw Kelly and me, they let out a whoop and clapped loudly.

The white half, that is. The black half booed.

In an interview with WNIJ, Lawrence didn't say whether this story is a metaphor for racial integration. But he did address the significance of a tournament format known as "wrestleback." You can hear the author's comments, and an excerpt from the story, in the Morning Edition interview clip above.

In "Why I'm Here," Lawrence pays homage to one of his favorite teachers, Ernie Stokes, by modeling a character after him. Like Ernie Stokes, "Mr. Stokes," teaches a course called Ideas of Man in which students explore philosophies of non-violence.

Lawrence calls Stokes a great role model during a time of "violence and individualism" at West High. A learned and cosmopolitan figure, Stokes made an impression on the first day of class:

"There's a scene in that story where he comes in and flops his books on the desk and drops his yogurt." Lawrence laughs, "We didn't even know what yogurt was."

Gary Lawrence in the WNIJ studios.
Credit Dan Klefstad

The story climaxes with a fight between two students -- again, one white and one black.

Asked whether the racial atmosphere was that bad, Lawrence replies, "I reserve the right to fictionalize a little. But it's certainly true there were constant tensions and things going on."

Gary Lawrence lives in Arizona and teaches English at Glendale Community College. Baffled is his first collection of fiction.

Next week, the Summer Book Series continues with Loose Talk, the debut poetry collection from Joseph Gastiger. Listen Friday, June 13, during Morning Edition. Then return here for an author reading and other information.

Meanwhile, enjoy this jingle for the book series, written and performed by DeKalb musicians Bill Leighly and Erica Ensign: