I always thought I would become a lawyer. I imagined myself engaging in courtroom debates, facing off against district attorneys who had no chance of putting my (innocent) clients behind bars. My imagination saw me standing in front of a jury of twelve people, winning each case through the dramatic use of hand gestures, voice modulation, clever repartee, and demonstrative body language. It would be great fun and highly profitable. Yes, yes, move over Perry Mason. Dennis E. Hensley was on his way.
Then, during my 1965-66 year at T.L. Handy High School in Bay City, Michigan, I landed in an Honors English class and fell under the spell of a master teacher. Mr. Neil Ringle was a world traveler, an engaging orator, a concert organist, and a highly educated literary scholar. He was like no other teacher I had ever encountered. In his classroom, we did not merely study plays by Moliere. We had to read pages aloud and even act out various parts. We ended up laughing so hard, we could barely breathe. How had I lived so long and never known that such a funny, funny Frenchman had written so many sarcastic parodies?
Mr. Ringle pushed us. Pushed us hard. In class we also read Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Poe, Melville, Hemingway, C. S. Lewis, and Chaucer. Mr. Ringle tested us on their works and assigned us to write papers about their plays, novels, and short stories.
But, more than all that, Mr. Ringle made the effort to get to know us personally, and he gave each of us an extra reading list that was customized to what he felt would make us fall even deeper in love with literature. My list included works by Jack London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, and Raymond Chandler. It’s still a mystery to me how he knew which writers I would relate to so keenly, but he certainly was accurate. I could hardly wait to get to Honors English each day, and I was always sad when the bell rang telling us to move to the next class (Algebra II, no less…ugh!). I became convinced that writers were the titans of intellectualism. To write a book or play that would be read by tens of thousands of people would be an achievement unmatched by any other. I decided to change my career goal. Forget law. I would strive to become an author.
In 1965, just before Christmas break, I came to class early. I approached my teacher at his desk and announced, “Mr. Ringle, I have always thought I would like to become a lawyer one day. But it occurs to me that even if I became the most successful lawyer possible and rose through the ranks and became President of the United States, I could impact people for only eight years. However, if I became an author, I could impact people for centuries.”
Mr. Ringle raised one eyebrow. “Yes…if you ever had anything to say, Hensley.”
I broke up laughing. Although this man’s sardonic wit and biting criticism of his students’ thoughts and writings always sounded as though he was berating us, even mocking us, we’d all come to realize that he dearly loved us. He showed it in how he spent hours red-lettering our papers (no Track Changes back in those days, folks) so that we could see how to correct our errors and avoid repeating them. He gave us birthday cards. He arranged for us to serve as ushers at civic events on weekends so we could attend musicals, lectures, plays, and recitals for free. He persuaded the chairman of the English department to pay for a year’s subscription to The Atlantic Monthly for each of us so we could be exposed to the best of contemporary fiction writing and essays.
Expecting Our Best
Yes, he would tease us, argue with us, prod us, call us goofy nicknames, and even feign a heart attack when any of us would actually earn an A from him. But the undercurrent of fun and jest and genuine encouragement was transparent to us all.
So, in response to Mr. Ringle’s comeback, I said, “Then help me find something to say.”
He shook his head. “Oh, my dear lad, it would be a lifetime of heartache. Endless numbers of English teachers in this country wish they could be writers, not merely people who studied writers. But, alas, we—and, yes, I include myself in this frustrated mob—just don’t have what it takes to pen a classic. Won’t you please reconsider? It would be so much easier on you if you opted to be a clown or a brain surgeon, something far less demanding than being a writer.”
“I’ll keep those as fallback options,” I promised, “but I won’t rest until I give this writing thing a chance. Guide me, O Mentor.”
And he did. In addition to my regular homework assignments, he had me experiment with various types of writing. I wrote two short stories (embarrassingly bad, now that I look back on them) that were published in our school literary magazine The Plume, and I also wrote a few articles for our school newspaper, The Handy Pep. Seeing my name in print gave me a false sense of achievement, so I submitted some manuscripts to three national magazines and was stunned at how quickly they were returned to me with form rejection letters. Ouch!
It soon became time to think about higher education. My parents had never attended college, but they hoped their children would. However, we were just middleclass folks—three kids with a stay-at-home mom and an optician dad who owned a small business. Not only were Harvard and Yale out of the question for me, so were Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. I explained this to Mr. Ringle when I informed him I would keep living at home, work part-time, and attend a local community college. His response surprised me.
“It doesn’t make any difference, Dennis,” he said. “Whether you go to an Ivy League university or a backwater trade school, no one will understand your goal. Trust me, once you tell admissions counselors you want to study to be a writer, they’ll try to pigeonhole you. They’ll either direct you into a journalism major where your training will be focused strictly on newspaper reporting, or they’ll channel you into an English education major with a plan to make you into a high school literature teacher.”
“But I don’t want either of those,” I said.
“Oh, I know that, and you know that,” said Mr. Ringle, “but they won’t understand that. Their job is to get you enrolled in a preset curriculum so you’ll pay tuition, attend classes, graduate on time, and then send donations back to the alumni fund. No university has a major called ‘Professional Writing: The Whole Gamut.’ You’ll have to carve out your own niche. I’ll help you in any way I can. We’ll stay in touch by mail. But remember I warned you from the get-go this was not going to be easy. That brain-surgery option is still on the table.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Not yet. Have to give this a run. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened if I’d actually given writing a career shot.”
Of course, he was right. No one knew what to do with me, so they simply enrolled me as an English major and told me what the required general education courses were and how many hours I would have left over for classes in composition, literature, rhetoric, and editing. It was all a hodgepodge, but I earned an associate of arts degree in English. I then transferred to a four-year college and, once again, was made a generic English major. I earned a bachelor’s degree, but my transcript was a jumbled array of classes that looked as if they’d been selected by throwing darts at a college catalog: “Poetry Writing,” “Colonial Literature,” “Hemingway Novels: A Seminar,” “Editorial Essays,” “Political Writings of the Civil War.” There was no focus, no game plan, no predetermined end result. I worked as a stringer for the campus newspaper, writing everything from profiles of professors to reviews of school productions and sporting events, but no one did any serious editing of my material or provided any helpful feedback.
One day when I was feeling at a low ebb, Mr. Ringle called and asked how I was doing. I candidly told him I felt I was on a treadmill, moving a lot but not seeing any visible progress. He had a suggestion. Vance Packard was coming to give a speech at a local venue in Bay City, and I should consider attending. In those days Packard was a phenomenally successful muckraker author, whose books, such as The Status Seekers, The Naked Society, and The Waste Makers, were always atop the best-seller lists. Mr. Ringle said I should buy a ticket for the speech, not so much to hear what Vance Packard had to say, but, instead, to try to get my face in front of Packard’s high-powered literary agent, who always traveled with him. Maybe the agent would give me some career advice.
Admission for that event was eight bucks, which was equivalent to about $60.00 in today’s money. But, hey, I was grasping at straws, so I bought a ticket and showed up. Sure enough, the agent was there in the front row, relaxing prior to the on-stage appearance of his famous client. I approached him, and for the sake of saving time here, let me just say that it was simultaneously a horrifying and a magnificent experience. I showed him some of my manuscripts, and he took out a pen and butchered several pages, showing me how incorrect my manuscript format was, how my leads were lame, how my dialogue was wooden, and how my writing lacked narrative drive.
None of my English teachers had been so insightful or blunt with me. But then, as Mr. Ringle had told me, they studied writing, but they didn’t know how it actually was done professionally.
So, the impromptu editing the agent did that night was very helpful, even if embarrassing. He also led me in a new way of thinking. He said, “You’ve got a whole lot of book learning, kid, and that’s okay to a point. But you’re shallow. You’ve never been married, never reared children, never held a full-time job, never bought a home, never traveled around the world, never invested in the stock market, never gone to graduate school, and never worked in any real writing environments. You can’t tell people what life is all about if you have no clue yourself. I suggest you stop going to school for a while and actually start learning a few things about the real world. Oh, and get away from English teachers and start hanging out with editors and writers.” He then shooed me away because Packard was making his entrance.
I don’t remember one thing Vance Packard said that night. I just sat in my eight-dollar seat and kept looking at the marks the agent had made on my pages and thinking about what he had said about me being too shallow to be a writer. It took a few weeks for the shock to wear off, but then I took his advice. I joined the Army and saw new vistas for two years—Kentucky, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and a full year in Vietnam.
The literary seeds Mr. Ringle had planted came to fruition in the decade after my senior year of high school. I returned to Michigan and used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree in English from Central Michigan University in just eleven months. During that time I got married. My wife and I moved to Muncie, Indiana, where I taught at Ball State University while completing a doctor’s degree in literature and linguistics. Mr. Ringle’s personalized reading list had a lot to do with my selecting the life and writings of Jack London as the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.
Equally important to my development as a writer, I also took a part-time job as a reporter at The Muncie Star, where, praise the Lord, the managing editor was an absolute tyrant who butchered my copy, ordered innumerable rewrites, taught me to hit deadlines, and pushed me into writing assignments I never imagined I’d experiment with.
The combination of graduate level education, real-life experience as a combat soldier and world traveler, and deadline-writing for a daily newspaper honed my skills. In time, I made it as a writer. Today I’ve written sixty books, as well as more than 3,500 short stories, articles, interviews, devotions, book reviews, and features.
However, of all the joys I’ve had as a working writer, nothing has ever topped one particular event. When my first hardbound book was released by Thomas Nelson Publishers in 1985, I included a very sincere tribute to Mr. Neil Ringle on the acknowledgments page. I drove to Mr. Ringle’s home in Michigan and presented him with a first-edition autographed copy.
He studied the words of tribute, nodding as he read, then he closed the book, looked at me, and said, “Well, it’s about time.”
And I laughed. He never changed.
Mr. Ringle lived to be ninety-three, and I had the privilege of visiting him almost every Christmas when my family and I would spend the holidays with relatives. He’d always give my son and daughter books to take home with them.
When he retired after more than forty years of teaching high school English, he stayed on in his house even though his wife had been killed in a tragic automobile accident. During my last visit before he passed away, he pulled me aside and said confidentially, “I wasn’t wrong, you know. I’ve taught more than four thousand students in my career, and only one—you—turned out to be a successful author. It’s a miserably hard career, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley holds four university degrees in English. He is chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University, where he holds the rank of full professor. He is a recipient of the Dorothy Hamilton Memorial Writing Award, the Elisabeth Sherrill Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and Speaking, and the Indiana University Award for Teaching Excellence. He has been a distinguished visiting professor at Oxford University and York St. John University in England and at numerous American colleges, including Regent University and Moody Bible Institute. He was awarded six medals for service in Vietnam with the United States Army. He and his wife Rose have two grown married children, Nathan and Jeanette, and four grandchildren.
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