Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Constance Wilson

Posted on: December 19, 2013

ConstanceWilsonIn sixth grade, the editor of the local newspaper in her hometown gave Constance Wilson the opportunity to interview people for feature stories. This led to bigger writing experiences. Wilson has been writing for nearly six decades. A life-long film buff, Connie began reviewing movies for newspapers in the 1970s. Later, she also started interviewing local celebrities, reviewing books, and writing humor columns. She stopped writing reviews when she founded the first of two businesses in 1987, a Sylvan Learning Center and a Prometric Testing Center. Both businesses and two children kept her busy, but after selling the two successful businesses, she turned to writing books for adults. Her most recent creative venture is a picture book series for children, the second of which I’ll review here tomorrow at Allison’s Book Bag. Save the date: December 20!

ALLISON: Describe a typical childhood day.

CONSTANCE: My childhood, growing up in small-town America (Independence, Iowa, population then 3,000-5,000) was just as uneventful and happy as it sounds. Very white-bread. Two loving parents. Banker father, whom I idolized and probably modeled on. Kindergarten teacher mother. One sister four years older.

I remember climbing out the window and tip-toeing through not the tulips, but the lily-of-the-valley in the garden outside my window to avoid having to clean my room on Saturday mornings. I remember an old orange crate in the bedroom I shared with my sister Kay that was filled with comic books and doubled as an end table.

I was always  outside playing or riding my green Schwinn bike. We used to pretend we were horses and run around like idiots. We gave our imaginary horses exotic-sounding names like “Diablo.”

I remember going to the movies (they cost a nickel) at the Malek Theater one block from my house and fighting with my sister over who got to lean their elbow on the armrest. Lots of westerns. The Cavalry was always rescuing the people at the Fort from the Indians at the eleventh hour.Very politically incorrect today. I think I had a pair of chaps and a vest  to emulate Hopalong Cassidy. My parents called me “Hopalong Catastrophe.”

I had a black cat named Newcomb and a black Labrador Retriever, for a while. I lived on a hill one block from the Wapsie-Pinicon River in a historic old house built by the original stationmaster of the railroad line that went through at the end of 2nd Avenue, the street I grew up on.

The river often flooded. The sale barn was near the river and the Amish drove their horses and buggies into town to take their livestock to the sale barn near the Old Mill (now a historic landmark) and I’d hear the sounds of the horses clip-clopping down what was then a brick street (since repaved) through the open window of my upstairs bedroom.

We completely remodeled the house when I was 12, but it still had no air conditioning and we didn’t get television until I was about 16, so I spent all of my time at the public library, intending to read every single book in it. I was a fixture at the library.

I used to go down to the area where the Amish tied up their horses and pet them. My neighbor ’s dad was a blacksmith who had a shop in that area and would often be shoeing the horses, along with other welding tasks. We were always warned not to look directly at the welding flame.

No TV until I was 12. Other people had television sets, but my mother thought that television was a fad. (“Pictures were never meant to fly through the air.” Ha!) So, a very Mark Twain-like old-fashioned childhood. But, having said that, we did have one of the largest mental institutions (one of four) in the state of Iowa on the edge of town, and that is also a presence lurking in my memory and, yes, I heard horror stories about it.

I made up stories even then.

ALLISON: When did you first start to write?

CONSTANCE: I attended St. John’s Elementary School and it was about a block from my house. One year, a tornado ripped the roof off St. John’s Church and dropped it in my back yard and my father built me a playhouse from the boards. We called it “the hookey.”

I’ve told many times of winning $50 for a poem in an Archdiocese of Dubuque poetry contest. After the contest was over, the editor of the town newspaper asked my dad (the founder and president  of the local Security State Bank) if I’d like to go out and interview people for the newspaper. I think it was sort of a gimmick, but I started doing that at about 10 or 11.

ALLISON: What animal do you see yourself most like? Least like?

CONSTANCE: My birthday places me on the cusp of Leo and Cancer. To me, Leo means lion, so I’ll go with that animal as “most like.” I hope I am least like a centipede. Those things give me the creeps.

Interestingly enough, my son (July 31, 1968) is a Leo. My daughter (July 8, 1987) is a Cancer. They were born 19 years apart, which is also unusual. (No, it wasn’t a second marriage, although my dentist for years thought so.)

ALLISON: What is your most favorite holiday? How do you celebrate it?

CONSTANCE: My favorite holiday is Easter because we fly to Cancun for 2 weeks with family members. I don’t have to cook and the weather is wonderful.

I just had Thanksgiving for the 46th straight year in a row. It was smaller than usual, but, since it could hit 31 people in the near future, anything around 20 is small. I’m ready to pass the torch of Thanksgiving to the younger generation, but I have vowed to continue cooking for the masses until my wonderful mother-in-law, who is 95, is no longer with us.

After that, it’s every family for themselves with Game Night at Aunt Connie’s house. Yesterday, we called in hospice for Helen, my mother-in-law, whom I love as much as I loved my own (dearly departed) mother. My cooking days for groups larger than 8 or 9 may be numbered.

ALLISON: An introvert or extrovert? How has this personality shaped you?

CONSTANCE: I would say that I’m an extrovert, but, once again referencing being  “on the cusp” (July 23), I’d say that I have a very sensitive side. So, I’ve got the leadership thing going on with the easily hurt sensitive thing, as well.

ALLISON: Describe your best teaching experience. Your worst.

CONSTANCE: I’ve had a lot of good teaching experiences. It was great being picked as one of the “Ten Most Creative Teachers in America” by TAB Scholastic Books for a unit I submitted called “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Super-Lemon!” (Ad Campaigns in the Classroom). I used film a lot. I once created a grammar game based on Trivial Pursuit that corresponded with our textbook.

In 1993, First Lady Barbara Bush came to town and personally presented me with a Bi-State Literacy Award for having the most active scholarship program in a 900-member Sylvan Learning Center chain (we never turned away a poor kid). So, those are pretty good memories.

When I was teaching in Silvis, Illinois, I had some grim experiences, as we had the worst cases of child abuse in Rock Island County (IL) at that time. Five of my former students ended up on Death Row (when Illinois had a Death Row). So, some not-so-good memories there.

Recently, a young man on Facebook, a college student, wrote me a note and told me I was “the best teacher I ever had,” and that was as gratifying as having won an award. I also remember running into one of my students at Eastern Iowa Community College. He hugged me and remembered my name, and when I said I was surprised that he remember me, he said, “I always remember the people who made a difference in my life.”

So, also cool. I tried to do a good job, and I never gave up, which is ingrained in me since childhood.

ALLISON: If you could star in any film, which would you pick? What is an obscure film you would recommend?

CONSTANCE: I like this question, because now you are in my wheelhouse: MOVIES. I love movies and have an award-winning book on movies entitled “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now” with 50 representative films from the years (1970-1985) when I was film and book critic for the Quad City Times, which  had 76 photos and interactive trivia. I’d pick “A Star Is Born” because it was a showcase for Barbra Streisand, so you know she got to be a diva. She originally offered the co-starring role to Elvis and he should have taken it, but the Colonel wouldn’t let him. It could have changed the course of his life.

Instead, Kris Kristofferson played opposite Barbara. I think my singing might fall short of Babs’, though.  I have A LOT of obscure films I’d recommend. For a comedy, “Lost in America” with Albert Brooks. For a riveting thriller/horror film, “Shallow Grave,” one of Ewan McGregor’s first films. For a movie I have always loved, the original “Manchurian Candidate” with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury and, also, “The Parallax View” with Warren Beatty.

Sylvan Learning

Sylvan Learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ALLISON: What process went into establishing the Sylvan Learning Center?

CONSTANCE: I was hired away from my tenured teaching job at the junior high school level (Silvis, IL) to write the book “Training the Teacher As A Champion” for PLS (Performance Learning Systems, Inc.) of Emerson, NJ, in 1985. After the book was done, there really wasn’t enough for me to do to justify being a full-time employee, which I was during the time I was writing the book.

Traveling the country for PLS introduced me to the Sylvan Learning Centers then in their infancy, and I thought it was a great idea and got in on the ground floor and opened my Sylvan Learning Center (#3301) on November 15, 1986.

It was a difficult job for an ex-English teacher with no accounting background to jump through those hoops, so I went in with a partner, which turned out to be not such a great idea. My husband helped me out with bookkeeping when I went solo, and I had the greatest staff in the world, with the least turnover of any staff in the chain. We had regular “staff bonding” exercises, like playing trivia together as the 7 Dwarves (I was Sleepy) and going out on a riverboat for brunch or renting a restaurant for a Christmas Party.

It was a great run (1986-2003) and I miss my staff and all the good we did and all the good times we had. But there comes a time to move on, and the election of George W. Bush told me the economy was going to be in for a rocky time and we would probably end up in a war.

Therefore, when I had an offer I couldn’t refuse, I took it. I was young to retire (fifties) so I returned to writing and decided I’d write one of everything. I’m still working on that.

ALLISON: You have written in a variety of formats and genres including humor and horror. How did you end up writing a picture book?

CONSTANCE: I ended up writing a picture book because I wanted to teach my granddaughters how to write, and this will be a way to do that. Plus, I wanted to try to write “one of everything.” I like cats and this series is a “throwback” to a simpler day when values were taught in the schools and children were encouraged to be helpful and kind. I am alarmed at the things happening in our schools, as is everyone, and I think a book like this can help teach values that should be taught to everyone, child or adult. The books stress helpfulness, tolerance, kindness, not stereotyping others. In that sense, they are books I want to read to my granddaughters or have them read to me.

It began 6 years before they were born, however, when my daughter was dating a promising artist who was a high school student. It turned out that Andy Weinert’s mother had been my student in seventh grade. I asked Andy to put cats in silly hat in drawings. I promised they would see the light of day in book form. Then, the publishing house lost all his original drawings. It wasn’t until 7 years later that we were able to take the computer scans I had and improve the pixels enough to make a book out of the “lost” drawings. Then the girls’ Venezuelan nanny had to step in to help bridge the theme and make it “Christmas-y.” We both did it as a Christmas present for the girls.

You can order the books at The XmasCats  through Paypal, and you’ll get an autographed copy before Christmas. If you mention this article and tell me the address and how you want it signed, I’ll put in the first book for free. It will cost you $18 for postage and the second book and you will get 2 books.  The third book is already being illustrated by Gary McCluskey, who did Book #2 and did a fantastic job.

ALLISON: Cat or dog? Mouse or rat?

CONSTANCE: I like cats, but I also like dogs and have owned both. (Or, rather, they have owned me). Mice sound friendlier than rats, but I must confess that I like the Christmas rats a lot.

ALLISON: What is the most surprising thing about being a mom?

CONSTANCE: For me, it was that I was exhausted. I was teaching full-time, going to school 3 nights a week to get my Master’s, and raising my first child, Scott, who was one when I went to work as a teacher full-time. My husband really helped, as he babysat while I studied or went to classes that lasted from 5 to 9 after I had taught all day.

With my second child, Stacey, it was much easier. We were established in our jobs and could afford more help and I had completed my education and was now the CEO of my own business, so I could set my hours more.

I still remember, when I was teaching in Silvis, getting a phone call that my son had just been placed in an oxygen tent with double pneumonia after his Grandmother took him to the doctor for me. He didn’t seem that sick, but he had just gotten over the flu and seemed lethargic.

I went to the office and told them my son had been put in the hospital and the Superintendent actually asked me, “Is he going to die?” to justify giving me 2 personal days off, and I broke down in tears. They had me put something in writing saying I wasn’t going to be there for the next 2 days, and then took my 2 personal days.  When I didn’t make it back from a Christmas vacation trip because of airline problems and got stranded in Florida, they docked my pay 1/180th, while hiring a sub for a fraction of that amount.

Teaching is not for sissies–and anybody who thinks it’s easy ought to try it for a while. But motherhood is even more demanding and yet very rewarding at the same time. Your children are always your children and you always feel responsible for them. You have to learn to let them go and be their own people, but you always feel apprehensive and want the best for them. They are a joy and a challenge.

It is an act of complete selflessness to raise a child the right way, putting their needs in front of your own and remembering that they are modeling on you and they need to have good role models to grow up to be good people.

I’m very proud of both of my children, and, of course, I love them dearly and  I love my 2 granddaughters with all my heart, as well, and my wonderful daughter-in-law Jessica.

If I have anything to say about it, Ava and Elise (my granddaughters) will be authors, with me, on the Christmas Cat book series and learn to write in the process. That’s one thing I can gift them with and enjoy while we’re doing it together.

2 Responses to "Interview with Constance Wilson"

I appreciate Constance taking time provide with me with a lengthy interview.

Thanks so much for hosting Connie today! We are looking forward to your review.

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