Two dozen small heads turned upward, all eyes fixed on Bill McCleery. He was reading from "Wolf Story," a bedtime tale written for his son decades ago — now a childhood classic. With an actor's voice McCleery filled Micawber Books with the story of Waldo the Wolf, the "ferocious but foppish" beast that stalks cunning Rainbow the Hen.
At the end of the reading, McCleery inscribed the stack of books at his side with individual notes for each child. When it was my turn, he took the pen and paused, looking up at me with his smiling, sparkling eyes. He dedicated the story to me and to my children, who, he hoped, would love the story as much as I did.
McCleery was an author, a playwright, a journalist, a professor and a mentor. He served Princeton since 1958 teaching playwriting classes, overseeing University magazines and sitting on The Daily Princetonian Board of Trustees. Most every weekday at noon, he could be found in the dining room of Prospect House, seated at his usual table, front and center, regaling a captivated group with stories and advice.
As editor of the 'Prince,' I was treated to lunch with him once a month. He said he learned early on that all editorial business takes place over lunch, so for the first few minutes we'd talk shop. He was a sounding board for ideas and a proponent of change, offering salient, soothing advice. But once business was finished — almost always before the meal had been served — we'd get down to the good stuff and talk about careers, loves, adventures of the past and expectations of the future.
We offered each other advice: I came to him with worries about the newspaper and questions about what to do next. In exchange, he gave me his plays to read and critique, saying he needed a young woman's perspective on how the female roles were treated.
The friendship of a 21-year-old and an 88-year-old might seem odd. I don't know that McCleery got much more out of it than a lunch date — but I was treated to two hours of history. I would listen, as captivated as the children in Micawber's Books, to his life story.
At 15, McCleery entered the University of Nebraska and before Babe Ruth had hit his 60th home run in 1927, he was on his way to the editorship of The Daily Nebraskan. At 19, he was working as a reporter for the Omaha World Herald. That same year, "hick that I was," McCleery says he moved east to work at the Associated Press. After a stint in the Broadway play circuit, he edited the Ladies Home Journal and finally "retired" as a Princeton professor. In his 88 years, McCleery seems to have done it all, living the American 20th century to the fullest.
In the spring of 1998, McCleery told me he was resigning from the 'Prince' Board of Trustees. No one believed him — it was the seventh time he'd threatened to step down. Even after this, his final retirement, McCleery continued the ritual of lunches at Prospect House as recently as last month.
More than two dozen 'Prince' editors lunched with McCleery over a quarter-century. I am lucky to have been one of them. And when I read "Wolf Story" to my children, I look forward to telling them about those meetings and passing along even just a little bit of the life, wit and passion for writing that Bill McCleery embodied.
(Christine B. Whelan, a former Editor-in-Chief of the 'Prince,' is from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at email@example.com)