So, I tried to think of someone else besides my parents who influenced me. Here’s who I thought of:
This person was a woman, and her name was Elaine Burgess. Don’t let that name determine her heritage. She was a full-blooded Native American from Oklahoma who wore her pitch-black hair in a single ponytail down to her waist.
She was my high school English teacher and took her name so as to blend into American society in the late 1940s. She had a passion for books. She was concerned with her students being readers and writers.
I already was a reader before I entered high school. I had a Chicago Public Library card when I was in grade school and was fortunate to have a branch library within walking distance of my house. It was small, and the selection was limited. But high school changed all that — a huge library and an English teacher who opened doors.
Every once in a while, Miss Burgess had a contest. Everyone in her class had to write a short story, and it had to be fiction. She also awarded a prize for the best story. Of course, she was the final judge and jury. But that was OK. We all felt that she was fair.
The contest I remember most is the one I won. I don’t remember what I wrote, but she awarded me the prize.
By the way, the prizes she awarded were always books, and she paid for them out of her own pocket. The school said that these contests were her idea, so they could not fund the awards.
The book I won in that particular contest was John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” It triggered a lifetime love of Steinbeck, which is still with me today.
That particular copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” still sits on my bookshelf among every other book Steinbeck ever wrote. It still resonates today with readers around the world.
Thanks, Miss Burgess, for a lifetime love affair with books, and specifically John Steinbeck.
— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist