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Browsing through the volumes in my personal library, I came across a book called "Seeing the Middle West," written by John T. Faris and published by J.B. Lippincott in 1923.

The name "Faris" struck a chord of recognition. He had written an article for the "Egyptian Key" magazine in the 1940s about Anna-Jonesboro High School and its predecessor, the Union Academy of Southern Illinois, that I mentioned in a recent column.

Then I found another article that Faris had written about his own career, in the October 1944 issue of "Egyptian Key."

Faris is described as "printer's devil, minister, and author of more than 60 books," a fascinating character.

Born in 1873 in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Faris moved, at the age of 12, to Anna where his father, the Rev. William Wallace Faris, had been named pastor of the Presbyterian Church.

"When I was a rather rapscallion youngster in Anna, John Faris wrote, "people thought I ought not to be a minister, like my Dad and Granddad. One of them said, feelingly, 'The saints preserve us!' "

The elder Faris had started a newspaper, "The Talk," which flourished, the younger Faris wrote, "in spite of the handicap of having me as devil [apprentice] at fifty cents a week."

By 1892, Faris recalled, he was taking home $20 a week at the Minneapolis Typographical, a princely sum in those days!

He also remembered that "The Talk" had allowed him to do some writing and that, at the age of 15, he had been named the Union County correspondent for five St. Louis and Chicago daily newsapers.

Faris gained some newspaper experience in Anna, San Francisco and Minneapolis before enrolling at Princeton University and deciding to become a minister (although his first preference was still journalism.)

After spending five years in the pastorate in St. Louis and four in Mount Carmel, Faris was offered a position in Philadelphia as editor of the many publications of the Presbyterian Church.

"God had turned things around in His way, not mine," Faris wrote, but he was very pleased.

Membership in the World Sunday School Committee led Faris to conventions in Tokyo and Glasgow and eventually to travels around the world.

He mentions "journeys on every sea, on all continents, from North Greenland to New Zealand, Australia, South America, Java, Sumatra, Malaya," until the outbreak of World War I made travel impossible.

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His long career as an author of books came about not by determination, Faris wrote, but accidentally.

While in St Louis, he had been in charge of one of the country's largest Sunday schools and he was asked to write a book about Sunday schools. This led to a request by an eastern publisher for a book on how children "should be led to love, not hate Sundays."

Then Faris was offered $500 to write a children's book on history.

By this time, Faris was living in Philadelphia and, travel being restricted by the war, he wrote several books about viewing highlights of that area, including "The Romance of Old Philadelphia," "Old Churches of Philadelphia," and "Seeing Pennsylvania."

Writing to sources in Washington, D.C. for illustrations for his books led him to write about other areas of the country.

Among these volumes was a series of five travel books, including "Seeing the Middle West," a copy of which I found on a shelf in my study.

BEN GELMAN is the former Sunday news editor for The Southern Illinoisan and is an avid bird watcher.

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