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Grandmother has the write stuff

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Juanita Hodgen, 77, publishes first book

By Geoff Hamill

For more than 30 years, Juanita Hourigan Hodgen’s stories had been sitting in an old shoebox. They were written for grandchildren who were away on vacation in the early 1970s, but they had hardly been thought of again since.

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Hodgen has lived in Springfield all of her life, and when she married at the age of 15, she and her husband Bob bought a farm in Marion County. They considered moving to that farm, but instead made their home in Springfield, where they have been for the past 62 years. That farm was the inspiration for stories for her grandchildren, but Hodgen said she would never have imagined that they would someday be published.

“I never thought about publishing the stories. I just wrote them for my grandchildren,” she said. “They were away on vacation, and I would write a chapter, type it up and then send it to them. They really enjoyed the stories, and that’s why I wrote them.”

Now, not only Hodgen’s grandchildren, but the children and grandchildren of others everywhere can enjoy one of her stories, which has been published in her book, “Wally and Freddy Leave Home.”

The story was written about a chipmunk and a frog, and the characters were created with that Marion County farm in mind. Hodgen said she used animals she saw under a large old tree on the property, and simply gave them names.

When Amelia Yaste, one of Hodgen’s granddaughters, found the shoebox of stories, she immediately wanted to see them published for her grandmother.

“This summer has been very emotional for me. I was preparing to move away from home with my husband for the first time. I had been accepted into Murray State University’s program of anesthesia. I knew I would only be home for the holidays until after graduation in 2011,” Yaste said. “During the last few weeks at home, I found myself thinking about Mema’s stories. I knew she had always wanted to be published. She had told me that someone offered to illustrate a story in the past, but never followed through. So the stories stayed in the box in the basement. I thought about how great it would be if we could get her stories preserved in books.”

Yaste said she had been painting for a few years, and had even done a mural over the baptistry at New Beginnings Church on Perryville Road. Still, she had never drawn cartoons, so she had a challenge ahead.

“I went to her house, and she pulled out a box full of stories she had written in the past,” Yaste recalled. “She read a few of them as I typed them into my laptop. When I came to the story of Wally and Freddy, I felt an instant connection. I told her, ‘I really like this one.’”

Yaste said she made notes, then went home to bring Wally and Freddy to life.

“Before I began, I said a prayer and began brainstorming on how I would draw the characters,” she said. “I had never drawn cartoons before, so it took several hours before I created the characters you see today. It took about seven days to create all the illustrations.”

Yaste put the story and images together in her laptop, then uploaded them to the publisher, putting the wheels in motion for the production of the first copy of the book.

“When she saw her book on the computer, she began to cry tears of joy,” Yaste said of her grandmother. “She told me she didn’t think anybody would do anything with the stories until after she died.”

Hodgen said she can’t believe the story is actually in a book, and that the book is for sale around the world on the Internet.

“I didn’t even think I’d be using a computer on the Internet, and I sure didn’t think I would have a book being sold on there,” Hodgen laughed.

Sharing stories with her children and grandchildren is nothing new for Hodgen, and reading has always been an interest for her. She loved to read as a child, and a family member recalls teaching her to read in the late 1930s.

Mary Ann Hardin was a teacher at Beech Fork, a one-room school in Marion County. She spent just one year at the small school, and then another at a school at Gravel Switch before leaving the classroom when she married William Hardin in 1940. She could never have known while in the classroom that she would one day be related to a pupil in that first class, Juanita Hourigan, who is now her sister-in-law, as well as a published author.

“She was a mighty sweet little girl and a bright pupil,” Hardin recalled. “I think it’s wonderful that she has published this book. She is a wonderful lady. Juanita didn’t finish high school, but she has given herself an education. She loves to read, and reading gives us an education. I am so proud of her, and I’m proud of my great niece, Amelia, too.”

So what’s next for Springfield’s newest author? Maybe more stories about Wally and Freddy. Hodgen said the publisher has already suggested that she create more of the stories, and she said there is room for the story to continue. That was coincidence, and she was not planning for a sequel to a book, but simply for more stories to entertain her grandchildren when she originally wrote it. Still, she is considering writing more stories in the future.

As for Yaste, she is also on board to do more books if her grandmother decides to continue writing. After all, her grandmother is the reason for her involvement in the first place.

“I know that I helped make a very special dream of hers come true,” Yaste said. “I didn’t do this for me, I did this for my grandmother. She is a very special woman, and I’m very proud of her.”

Hodgen and her husband Bob still live on the same farm on Jimtown Road in Springfield where they settled after their lives together began 62 years ago. They are the parents of four children, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Hodgen will be signing her book, “Wally and Freddy Leave Home” on Saturday, Dec. 6 at Springfield Baptist Church as part of the Bethlehem Breakfast from 8-11 a.m. The book can be published online at Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble’s online store, barnesandnoble.com.