My email to Betty Bennett was not the first time I’d encountered a Scholar Star. Back in the late 1980s I’d gotten interested in Jack London (I was teaching The Call of the Wild every year to my eighth graders) and was in the process of reading all fifty of his books (only four are about dogs, by the way—and two of those were published posthumously)—and everything else I could about him. In 1990 I applied for—and was accepted into—a summer seminar on London for secondary school teachers, a six-week course sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The leader was Prof. Earle Labor, the leading London scholar in the world. (He still is.) Earle had published countless articles, edited collections of London’s work, and was writing what I knew would be (and has turned out to be) the definitive biography, published late in 2013.
That summer I drove out to Rohnert Park, California, where I and the other dozen or so seminarians lived on the campus of Sonoma State University, near the site of London’s former ranch at Glen Ellen, near the settings for any number of his stories and novels (including Little Lady of the Big House and The Valley of the Moon). We were in class all morning every morning, then spent our afternoons and evenings doing our homework, working on our seminar projects (mine was an annotated edition of The Call of the Wild, published in 1995 by the University of Oklahoma Press—a book that bears the imprint of Earle’s influence and published with his support), and hiking and hanging out with one another.
Some dark things happened that summer for me and my family (the death of my father-in-law, the descent into deep Alzheimer’s of my mother-in-law), some emotionally wrenching ones (our son—our only child—was preparing to leave home for college), so that London seminar was one of the few bright lights for me in a sometimes sullen summer sky.
Anyway, out in Rohnert Park I made some fast friends—none more fast that Earle Labor himself. We have stayed in touch over the years (we still exchange email now and then), have read each other’s manuscripts (I’ve been far less help to him than he has been to me), and have seen each other occasionally, as well. In 2003, Earle invited me out to Centenary College of Louisiana (where he taught) to participate in the celebration of the centennial of the publication of The Call of the Wild. On September 28, I talked to a large group, showed slides of the settings of the novel—from Santa Clara County, California, to the Canadian Yukon. Had a grand time. (Sold some books!)
So when I emailed Betty Bennett on October 26, 1998, I’d already had wonderful experiences with a prestigious—but warm and accommodating—scholar. But I had no real clue that I was about to have some more.