A retired lawyer embarks on a creative pursuit that becomes a second career
Many people eagerly await retirement. They look forward to not having to get up early and go to an office. Some dream of puttering around a golf course, catching up on a lifetime of deferred reading, fishing, attending a craft’s class, or taking advantage of early bird specials. Yet others dread the day, considering the time spent not working to be the waiting room to eternity. A friend of mine’s father was so bored he became a Wal-Mart greeter. How many, however, find their true passion later in life?
Joe Brown—yes, famed makeup master Bobbi Brown is his daughter—has done just that. For him, retirement was like opening the door to a whole new universe. Indeed, at the age of 70 he embarked on a writing career; and four years later, published his first children’s book which would eventually become a series of seven.
Having spent his entire adult life a successful attorney in Chicago, writing children’s books instead of legal briefs would not appear to be the logical next step. But for Joe, it was simply finally having the time to pursue a lifelong passion. You see, in the 60s Bobbi and her siblings grew up listening to the compelling bedtime stories that Joe had created for them. The hero was Marceau, a New York City cab driver. “In order to escape his less than exciting existence,” Joe tells me, “he imagines himself participating in amazing, fun-filled adventures which he relates to the passengers he picks up each day.”
The magical hack can talk to animals and flies on the back of his best friend, an eagle named Majesty. In the stories he travels around the world rescuing people and animals alike. For instance, when a collection of zoo residents were stranded by a hurricane, Marceau swooped into action. You can just imagine the rest.
“I always encourage children to use their imagination,” Joe says. “It’s a wonderful place to visit. And just because you make something up doesn’t mean it didn’t really happen.” Such is the power of fantasy!
For her part, Bobbi is extremely proud of her father. “My dad has always believed in me a hundred percent. He has supported me with every decision I made throughout my life. I owe my success and who I am today to him.”
And the story of how Bobbi returned the favor by turning him into a professional writer is one of Joe’s favorites. At his children’s insistence, he had jotted down all his tales of Marceau so he could tell them time and time again. When the kids got older, though, Joe recalls, “the papers were put in a box in the attic and we all went on with our lives.”
Then, on one of his travels, like Marceau himself, they magically appeared. “In 2005, on my 70th birthday, I was in Telluride on my way to dinner with Bobbi and her family. They said they needed to get something from the bookstore and as I followed them in, I was astounded to see a display of books, The Flights of Marceau, by Joe Brown. Bobbi had found the box with the old stories and had them printed into a real-live, hard cover book. I was an author. It was the greatest gift I had ever gotten. I never looked back.”
Not content to just be a beloved author of children’s books, Joe decided to take his message on the road. And again like Marceau, he has become a hero. “I have done readings and discussed writing and imagination at many, many schools, both public and private, preschool to high school, all over America.” His primary readings are in schools, but in addition, he conducts them in hospitals, libraries, and such non-profit organizations as the United Way, and WITS, a tutoring and mentoring program in Chicago. “And wherever my travels take me, from St. Thomas to Hanoi, I always find local classrooms so I can read to the students. Now published by Scholastic, each child then gets his or her own book. “I must have donated 10-15 thousand new, hardcover books,” he adds.
Most importantly, Joe gives children the opportunity to use their minds. “The text is written in rhyme—“rhyme has no rules,” he explains. “Poetry has parameters.” And he uses everyday, adult language, the goal being to improve the reader’s word recognition and vocabulary. “The books are both entertaining and educational―occasionally focusing on worldly concerns such as global warming and rain-forests. When each story is over, the reader has learned new words in context. Also, the good guys always win, the bad guys always lose – and nobody ever gets hurt.”
We all know that today, childhood imagination can use all the help it can get. What with hundreds of TV channels, robot toys, and ever more realistic video games, kids are living in a virtual world, no longer needing to use their minds nearly as much as before any of those existed. It’s all spelled out for them. Truth be told, I certainly have resorted to the wonders of Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Team Umi Zoomi as mesmerizing babysitters, but always with a twinge of guilt as the wee ones became passive watchers. Through it all, though, I firmly believed that imagination is the gateway to inspiration and creativity. Joe echoes my sentiments. “Do you realize that everything that man has ever done or made, in the entire history of the world, was first imagined?”
I asked Joe if he could share with us some tips on how to start to build a child’s creativity. “First of all, I always begin my talks with the sentence, ‘Does anyone know what imagination is? Then I say that my very best friend in the whole world is an eagle named Majesty. Who is yours? You wouldn’t believe what a lively discussion this opens up.”
Joe also advises, “If you think of something good and you don’t write it down, you will forget it. If you do, you’re an author. How great is that?” So he suggests carrying around a pencil and paper at all times. He also recommends telling your child that there “really is such a place as imagination and you can actually go there. If envisioned properly, for example, even a tiny sparrow can stop a tornado!”
Furthermore, “ask your Grandpa to create a story for you; the story about his life, where he came from and how he got here. He has some very important things to say. If you or he note them down, you will both end up with a wonderful book. The proudest and happiest days in a man’s life are when he marries, when he has a child — and when he holds his own book in his own hand,” Joe concludes.
Anything is possible when you engage the power of your imagination. And Joe’s uplifting story also proves that it’s never too early—or too late—to follow your dreams and make them come true. Above all, the best part of being a child is the innocence of youth and the belief in the possibilities of a life yet to be lived in full. Joe is a perfect example of someone who has been able to keep those options alive for more than70 years, and is now taking his inspiring words to children everywhere—and of every age.
To read Joe’s work, check out www.theflightsofmarceau.com.
This story originally appeared on Spry Living.