Ellis native, author returns to her old school for first time
The Hays Daily News
Monday, April 7, 2008
Posted with permission of the Hays Daily News, Hays, KS
April 12, 2008
Janet Gagnon glanced around the room on the third floor of the 100-plus year-old building and smiled. This brought back good memories.
She hopes her book can do the same.
Gagnon, an Ellis native and graduate of Girls Catholic High School in Hays, earlier this year published a children’s book , “Mud Poppers and Leaf Whistles,” about a young Austrian immigrant from the Bukovina province.
Gagnon, who now lives in Fairfax, Va., was in Ellis County this weekend to attend a family wedding.
On Friday, she visited her former high school on West 13th Street, a three-story rock building that now serves as the parish service center for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hays.
Gagnon reminisced about the spot where she sat, in a room in the southwest corner of the building where a new coffee bar, Cup a Joe, had opened for business the night before.
She had vivid memories of participating in physical education in the gymnasium, which is what the third floor was used for at the time.
It’s that type of memories that prompted her to write the children’s book.
“There’s a lot of information out there for adults about our ancestry, but very little for children,” said Gagnon, the youngest of 10 children of Joseph and Agatha Weber whose ancestors came to America from the Austrian province of Bukovina and settled near Ellis.
Gagnon said after helping her children research history on their ancestors for school projects, she thought, “Hmmm. What’s going to happen when I’m gone?”
“So I thought, ‘I’d better get something down in writing,’ ” Gagnon said. “After our generation is gone, they’re not going to know this.”
So she set about making notes about her heritage, and it evolved into writing a children’s book after she helped the children of other relatives with family research.
She calls her book “historical fiction,” because the names aren’t real people although it’s a story about real people.
But for anyone in this area, it’s a lot like a personalized version of the classic “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The reader can find familiar names all throughout the book including Johann, the name of the young Austrian boy, a 12-year-old who came to America from Eastern Europe on a ship with his family.
“I tried to get a name that was used a lot back then,” said Gagnon, who said the book originally had been written for 9- to 12-year-olds but younger and older readers have enjoyed it, too.
The story tells about the trials his family endured while coming to their new country while traveling in the steerage of the ship, the lowest class ticket that featured hundreds of people in one room below deck.
“It’s a very different thing that I don’t think children are aware of,” Gagnon said. “They just didn’t get on a luxury liner and come to America.”
The book tells of other challenges they face, including the cholera epidemic that hit their village before they left Europe, and their humble living quarters — a dugout — once they got here.
Gagnon said she might write a sequel to the book because a lot of people have asked what happens to Johann when he grows up.
“I took a lot of notes on the way,” she said of last week’s trip from Virginia by car with her husband, Wilfred “Chick” Gagnon serving as chauffeur.
Gagnon, a retired employee of the U.S. government, said she had done a lot of writing of manuals and newsletters during the years, but writing a children’s book provided a different set of challenges.
For instance, one of her own children, while proofing the book for her, asked Gagnon what a “header” was.
“I thought everyone knew what a header was,” she said with a laugh, explaining in her chapter of settling on a farm on the prairie that it is similar to a “horsedrawn lawnmower” that cuts wheat.
“So I had to go back and make sure I explained some things better,” Gagnon said. “I found out that it’s a big project writing a children’s book.”
She said the name of the book was born using creative playthings from both countries.
Mud poppers, packed balls of mud that make a noise like a pop of air when thrown in the air, were played with by Austrian youngsters. And American children used their imagination in making whistles from blowing in leaves situated just so in their hands.
The pencil drawing illustrations were done by her husband, children and grandchildren.
“Kind of a family affair deal,” Chick Gagnon said.
While she said she comes back home to Ellis County about once a year, Gagnon never had returned to the school building after her graduation in 1955 before Friday.
The school later moved to a brand-new building on Hall Street near an all-boys’ high school, St. Joseph Military Academy, in 1961. The girls’ school was renamed Marian High School, and the boys’ school later took on the name of Thomas More Prep.
The two schools combined in 1981, and alumni from both are looking forward to a big centennial celebration this summer.
The Gagnons have another family wedding, in Tulsa, Okla., in August, so they are unsure whether or not they also can make another trip to Hays in July.
TMP-Marian’s centennial celebration is set for the weekend of July 11 to 13.
But one thing they are sure of. Janet Gagnon will begin working on her second book, as early as her return trip home this week.
“I’m going to write notes, begin thinking about it on the way back,” she said. “Once I write it down, it’s easier to morph into a book.”