Father explores son’s life, poetry in book
By LYNN ISRAEL of the Tribune’s staff
Published Sunday, June 26, 2005
Bartlett Jones lost his son to AIDS, but in the process of compiling a book of poetry by his gay child, the father gained insights about a loved one that many parents will never realize.
The book, "Senseless and Sensitivity," is a collection of poems, drawings and journal entries by Robert Charles Jones, who died in 1998 in Chicago at age 29. Robert was valedictorian of his high school class in Fayette and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied drama.
Bartlett Jones - who self-published the 210-page book in 2004 - says he thought it "would be a good lesson about life" and about "people with an altruistic nature doing destructive things."
"What I hope people get out of the book is how complicated human nature is and how sensitive some people are," he says. Jones, a retired University of Florida-Gainesville professor, and his wife, Carol, make their summer home in Columbia.
At 7 p.m. Aug. 11, Jones will talk about the book at the Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway. He welcomes group discussions. In the past, he has attended PFLAG meetings and other talks at which people have stood up and read the poetry.
"Some of the poems are humorous; some are homoerotic; some are bitter," Jones says.
He says he thinks the impact of the words and their combined meanings is somehow multiplied when someone speaks the poetry instead of merely reading it. While visiting the Tribune last week, he read aloud part of a poem titled "I Have a History":
"I woke up and discovered,
That I have a history.
I am just not water covered by skin.
I am days and hours.
I am young women singing.
I am atoms, and Adams,
And neurons, and rivers.
I am success and desolation.
I am strong men and women
Who have blazed many trails."
“The Life of Helen Stephens: The Fulton Flash”by Sharon Kinney Hanson
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
By JOE WALLJASPER of the Tribune’s staff
Published Sunday, February 27, 2005
When Sharon Kinney Hanson suggested to Olympic gold-medalist Helen Stephens the idea of writing her biography, Stephens invited Hanson into her cluttered basement and produced a copy of the February 1937 edition of Look magazine. In it was a photo of the Fulton native with a caption that read, "Is This a Man or a Woman?"
Hanson took this gesture to be a test, a warning signal from Stephens that her life story had some twists and that writing the biography was not a job for the weak. Hanson accepted the challenge.
That was 1990.
What started as a side project to a book Hanson was writing about the Katy Trail became a consuming 14-year ordeal. The mere act of sorting and archiving the keepsakes of one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes was a challenge - Stephens kept every newspaper article, love letter and Irish Sweepstakes entry form, in no particular order - but the task got more difficult after Stephens’ death in 1994. Stephens’ brother sued Hanson for the rights to his sister’s papers, putting the book in limbo for years. The search for a publisher was arduous.
Fortunately, Hanson stuck with it. In November, "The Life of Helen Stephens: The Fulton Flash" (Southern Illinois University Press, 262 pages) was released. This is a story that deserved to be told about an athlete who, for various reasons, most of them out of her control, isn’t as celebrated as she should be.
It’s the story of an 18-year-old farm girl from Callaway County who outran rival Stella Walsh and the rest of the world’s best sprinters to win gold medals in the 100-meter dash and 400-meter relay at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Her time wasn’t beaten until the 1960 Games, but Stephens never competed in the Olympics again. The 1940 and ’44 Games were canceled because of World War II, and her request to run in 1950 was denied because her years barnstorming with paid basketball and baseball teams voided her amateur status.
If the circumstances were different, she likely would have won numerous gold medals.
What brings the story to life is that Hanson didn’t have to rely on the foggy memories of the past. Stephens kept a diary of her Olympic experience, so readers get a real taste of behind-the-scenes political and social dealings. The boat rides across the Atlantic to and from the Games were boozy affairs, and exactly what was Jesse Owens up to in a lifeboat in the middle of the night? In Stephens’ diary, the winning of the 100 meters was covered in a brisk three sentences and a private meeting with Adolf Hitler merits two sentences - about the same treatment given to what she had for dinner on any given night.
Unfortunately, a Polish media report shortly after her victory accused Stephens of being a man. She had a masculine appearance and a raspy voice caused by a childhood injury that ruptured her larynx. Although the report was debunked, the issue came up again with the Look article.
Stephens was a closeted lesbian but gave Hanson permission to read her love letters and accurately depict her sex life.
As a 9-year-old, Stephens was sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old male cousin, which she said turned her off boys. Opportunities were limited enough for female athletes in those days, and broadcasting an "alternate lifestyle" probably wouldn’t have helped matters.
Her victories in Berlin brought her fame but certainly not fortune. After a few run-ins with the administration, she managed to graduate from William Woods College. She ran exhibition races against men, horses and cars. She played against men on touring basketball teams called the All-American Red Heads and the Helen Stephens Olympic Co-Eds. She played with and against men on a baseball team called the House of Davidites.
Unfortunately, those choices cost Stephens her amateur status without making her much cash - shady promoters got most of the haul.
After a series of short-lived jobs, Stephens landed at the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis in 1950 and stayed there until retirement. Shortly after starting that job, she settled down with Mabel Robbe in Florissant, and they lived together until Robbe died in 1986.
Stephens went on to coach the track team at William Woods and was an outspoken advocate for the importance of women and senior citizens participating in athletics. Late in life she became a highly sought public speaker, winning over audiences with her wit. She remained a fine athlete until the end. At age 56, she bowled a 269 game and always dominated at Senior Olympics competitions. Stephens was inducted into numerous national and states hall of fame.
It was a life packed with experiences. She met tyrants and presidents and rubbed shoulders with the greatest athletes of her time. It’s a story well told and well worth reading. For the sake of Stephens’ legacy, thanks to Hanson for persevering for 14 years to tell it.