June 27, 2017

About Me

‘Who is this fellow LaPlante?’

I’m sure  you’re asking yourself that.

Well, let me tell you about myself.  And feel free to ask me any questions I don’t get to answer below. Just email me at JohnGuyLaPlante@yahoo.com.

I spoke to a group … and look at the bouquet they gave me.        How nice!

I am a Journalist. Columnist. Author.  Public speaker. A bit of an Adventurer, which I never expected ever to be but must admit I am. And a quite recent Peace Corps Volunteer.

If this is not enough, here’s more. Too much more probably. With all this myself, you may think I’m an egomaniac. Not so. I’m merely assuming you’re curious about me. And I want to oblige.

I am a very curious person. I think this was a major reason I became a journalist.

Each and every one of us is a complex person. We have more facets than the fanciest diamond in the world. True of me.

I have been so many things since I got out of school  60 years ago. Newspaper reporter, columnist, feature writer, editor. University-level teacher.  College administrator. Real estate investor, operator, and developer.  PR consultant with my own shop. Hospital director of marketing. Elderhostel director. Free-lance newspaper writer and columnist. Travel tour director. Peace Corps Volunteer. Public speaker. Author. Radio talk show host. These things overlapping at times. Often simultaneously.

That’s been the business side of my life.  On the personal side, I’ve been a husband, father, divorcé, lover. The father of two sons and a daughter, and a grandfather five times.

I’ve been a chess player, ping-pong player, canoeist, small-boat sailor, bike rider, camper, wood worker, portrait sketcher and water-color painter, publicly elected official (library trustee), club member and officer, Rotarian. And extensive traveler, in our country and abroad.

In other words, I’ve had many responsibilities but I’ve also had an awful lot of fun.

And every day, I have been a voracious reader. Newspapers, books, magazines. They are as important to me as my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And music! Though I cannot carry a tune. Strange, don’t you think?

One of my grand adventures was my full 27-month hitch in the Peace Corps (Ukraine). That turned out to be an adventure and a half. I found the three months of training so difficult that I thought I might flunk out. Primarily because I had such a hard time studying the requisite Russian. Not wise to undertake something like that in your late 70’s. In fact, I entered at 77 and at 80 became the oldest Volunteer in the world.

You can read  about it in my latest book. “27 Months in the Peace Corps. My Story. Unvarnished.”

My first base back in the good old U.S.A. was in southern, California (Newport Beach) at milady Annabelle’s. Home, sweet home.

First, briefly, relaxation. Christmas with my daughter, Monique, and son-in-law David in Morro Bay, CA. Then back to Annabelle’s to complete my Peace Corps book.  A big job…a big book! Still not finished when I left in early spring to visit my sons Arthur and Mark in Florida and Georgia, respectively, and their families. Great visits.

May 10, 2010. My first day back in Connecticut.  All the snow and ice were gone finally after the worst winter in decades. The sweetness of spring in the air. My sister Lucie of West Hartford picked me up at Bradley International and drove me home to Deep River. I unlocked the door my condo in the old Piano Factory for the first time in nearly three years. Emotions of fulfillment and thanksgiving welled up in me.

A bit of dust on things but everything satisfactory. I had departed in a terrible rush to catch the train to enter Peace Corps in Philadelphia…and there were signs of that frenetic morning that rekindles sharp memories of that hectic departure.

Lucie helped me to make my bed and wanted to stay to help me with the thousand things to do. The hour was late. I kissed and hugged her, and off she went.

The next morning, 10 minutes after getting up, I tumbled down a flight of  stairs head first. Crashed into a closed door, head first, at the bottom. I thought I was paralyzed. Not so, thank God. No broken bones, but bad sprains and bruises. A life-changing accident. Several doctors, CAT scan, MRI, the works, physical therapy, two chiropractors.

Could not hold my head up! It dropped down against my chest. Tried cervical collars, etc. Didn’t help. I had to walk, talk, drive with my right hand pushing up against my chin. When I got tired of that, I’d switch to my left hand. But when I sat, I could hold my head up. Strange. So I was able to work, thank God. I put in full days on my book.

Came late fall. Winter threatened again. I flew off to California, as usual. First, to Monique’s. She and David looked at me aghast. “We are taking you to Dr. Watson’s!” she said.  I protested, “No! I’ve had enough of all that. This is bad, but it can’t be fixed.”

Yes, I was accepting my bad situation. I was lucky. It had happened so late in life. So many other people were worse off—I saw this often. This was a huge problem, but I could live with it. Thus did I rationalize.

They insisted. Drove me to Dr. Watson’s. Chiropractor. I had just spent weeks with one in Connecticut. He was well intentioned, or so I thought. Just a waste of time and money. Dr. Watson diagnosed my problem differently and got to work on me. In two sessions I could sense improvement. The first! How wonderful.

More inspired treatments. I added his recommended exercises to others I had picked up all the way. I had a whole repertory of exercises. Not sure which worked and which did not. Did them all religiously. Result: within weeks I was cured. Now I can hold my head up nice and straight, all by itself, all day long. It’s the closest thing I have ever experienced to a miracle.

I completed my book…. sent it off to Infinity Publishing. Now it’s out. I feel good about it. It’s a fair book—I tell the whole story of my service…the good and the not so good. All the while, my message comes through explicitly. As hard as it was, I enjoyed Peace Corps.

Darn few things are perfect. True of Peace Corps. But a good outfit. It does good. I did good.  I make all that clear. But I also make criticisms, as needed. And recommendations, as I see them. And I encourage everyone that I meet who seems a likely candidate to consider joining.

Now I have resumed the usual. I am giving talks about Peace Corps. And resumed my newspaper writing. Launched my blog. And picked up  my life in Connecticut and California.

Now to flash back to other major chapters in my life.

I took my big trip around the world  to mark my 75th birthday, so you can safely call me a senior citizen. I am proud of this privileged status, of course. How good it is to be able to do what I want when I want to. I hope you’ll have this good luck someday, if you’re not yet a senior.

I’m a New Englander. I was born in Rhode Island, spent my working years in Massachusetts, and my retirement years in  Connecticut. It’s a beautiful corner of the world.

For more than years, I escape the cold and the snow by heading for California. Now I live year-round in Morro Bay on the central coast of California, half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Here because I am close to my loving daughter, Monique.

 My parents were immigrants from Quebec, and French was my first language, learned on the laps of my mother and father and at parochial school. And on the street, of course.

I trained to be a journalist. After college in Worcester, Mass. (more about this in a minute), I knew I wanted to be a newspaperman (that was the word then) and felt I should get to know more about what makes the world tick. I felt such training would be important.

I went to Brown University to study economics and political science. It was convenient because just half an hour from home. I enjoyed the theoretical aspects –the rationale behind everything–but I had little background in  the heavy-duty math—calculus and statistics. Not fun.

Then I went on to Boston University for graduate work in journalism. That was a one-hour ride by train each way five days a week. That ride with all its regulars was always a pleasant part of my day. I enjoyed B.U. much more than Brown. I was in my true element.

I felt right at home there — all the professors were or had been working journalists — and I had fun getting through the program and leaving with a master’s degree. I worked on a couple of weekly newspapers and then switched to a mid-size daily, the Worcester Telegram back in Worcester.

I knew the city, of course. An unusual city. You will be surprised, I know, that it’s the second largest city in New England, though by just a hair. It’s lesser known than its runners-up, Providence and Hartford, because these, of course, are capital cities. But Worcester was and is a powerhouse. It is a big industrial city and the home to some big companies, and an impressive educational center, with 10 colleges and universities within the city or just outside.

First, a bit about Assumption College. It was an ethnic school, and Catholic, founded in 1904 by priests from France. They had chosen Worcester to take up the work of educating the sons of French-Canadian families like me. New England has a substantial population of Quebecois, who came south across the border in search of a better life. The typical immigrant story.

Assumption was an eight-year school, extending through high school and college. Half the courses were taught in English and half in French. Ever hear of a school like that? I wasn’t much interested in French then, but so grateful today for all that emphasis back then. I have maintained my French. Speak it. Write it. Proud of that.

We graduated with a B.A. degree. We went to Assumption to become a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure. Well, that was the joke back then. I didn’t become a priest, doctor, or lawyer. So it seems obvious what I became. (Please chuckle!)

Assumption had very few failures. Its grads went on to do well in numerous fields, though the preponderance targeted the priesthood, medicine, or the law. I believe I was only the second to jump into journalism. I heard of a predecessor but never learned much about him.

That interest developed when I became the  editor of our minuscule school newspaper, the Greyhound. It was  tiny. Just eight pages published erratically. Well, the school was tiny. There were only 33 of us in our graduating class! Maybe we were 37.

 Once out in the real world, at the Telegram I started as a reporter and then became a bureau chief, in charge of newsgathering in an area of nearby towns. Then I became a feature writer, on the paper’s Sunday magazine.

I loved being a feature writer most of all. The best job of all. I wrote one major feature a week, and I could choose it most of the time. Usually a personality piece, about a scientist or a beauty queen or someone else people would be fascinated to read about.

I also traveled afield. To Hyannisport on Cape Cod to report on how the folks there felt about having the Kennedys summering there and attracting the hordes of tourists. To Block Island off Rhode Island for a story about its evolution as it prepared for its 350th anniversary. To Greenwich Village in Manhattan for a profile of a young Worcester woman acting in a play there.

I also had some editing chores, tweaking free-lance contributions for our magazine and doing copy-editing. Then I became editor of the magazine. I loved that also, so stimulating. The creative challenge, the management responsibility, and the interesting people I worked with, and the many I chose to feature in our pages. That promotion also put me on the executive payroll. No objection to that. The basic difference was that suddenly I was being paid once a month in advance rather than every week at its close. I came to realize that was because it made it more difficult to leave with short notice.

 On the side I began writing a column, “On Camps and Camping”. Family camping was becoming a big thing. People had a bit more time and money. Tents and gear were becoming better. There was a newfangled thing called a tent trailer, and more people were buying alumni-clad and fully-convenienced travel trailer (with a bathroom just like the one at home, though smaller).

And private campgrounds were springing up to provide a choice beyond the state parks. I found all that out when I began camping with my young family. We went camping as often as we could in the short warm season and I wrote that column for 10 years without missing a Sunday. I’m proud of that. Once I wrote it from my hospital bed after a gall bladder operation. Did vacation camping all those years. A lot of fun for me and my family.

I was married by then. I had married Pauline, my college sweetheart. We had built a home in nearby Auburn. We worked hard, I at the newspaper and she as a teacher. And we had started a family. Three wonderful children came along, Arthur and then Monique and then Mark. All went well for many years, but then, sad to tell you, after two decades the marriage fizzled. I got caught in the spin of a classic mid-life crisis. Pauline was and is a fine person. I am pleased to say that we later developed and have maintained a cordial, in fact, caring relationship. Much appreciated.

After a dozen years on the newspaper, I was offered a job as public relations director at my old school, Assumption. I made the move because it paid better, offered more time off and other perks, and I was intrigued by PR.

I had met many public relations people who came to the paper in the course of their work, and I saw that it was important work and interesting in its own right.

I loved Assumption, though it was losing its original mandate and opening its doors to one and all – an inevitable evolution in our pluralistic and democratic society. In fact, I had been teaching evening courses there on the side. I felt right at home at Assumption. I knew many of the priests and understood its history and traditions and strengths.

I edited the quarterly magazine, designed and wrote pamphlets and brochures and reports, and attended to media relations, luring reporters to come write stories and sending news releases to them. Assumption was growing…changing…opening its doors wider…launching graduate programs…going coed!

So exciting! I began learning a new specialty, “institutional development.” That’s a fancy euphemism, as most euphemisms are, for fund-raising mostly. Enormously important to all non-profits. I started getting good at it. I had a title change to director of public affairs, which reflected my widening responsibilities. And the money was better. Journalism is a modest-paying profession, sad to say. But great fun. Well, that’s how I felt.

It’s the poorest-paying of the professions, I’ve been told, and it hurts to say so. Because it’s so important in our society. And is unlicensed, by the deliberate choice of journalists. The only profession not licensed. Whoever would do the licensing would have the power to deny someone admission, and that could happen for reasons other than a lack of credentials. Journalists are concerned about the implications of that. We all know how often the news deals with sensitive subjects which some people would do anything not to see reported.

So with no licensing, it’s easy to call yourself a journalist. There’s always a large pool of candidates. We know what happens when there’s a large supply and a lesser demand. By-lines are good for the ego but don’t go far in helping you make your mortgage payments. Shameful that journalism doesn’t pay better for the rank and file, especially when you reflect on how important journalism is and what talents it requires to do it well. I’ll drop this right now, though I could go on and on.

I left Assumption after four and a half years. A fine place but I wanted to do my own thing. Which was running a PR shop of my own. I did that, starting alone at home, and then built it up. I developed a full slate of clients.

They were hospitals and schools and other non-profits as well as a few for-profits, such as an up-and-coming insurance agency. They were all places which did not have a formal public relations program. Typically I would launch their program on a part-time basis. In time they would see that it worked well and was worth doing and they would develop an office of their own. Then they would send me a letter thanking me for my services and wishing me well. That was the typical cycle. Always bad news. But I’d find another new account and carry on.

I developed a small staff – we were five at the end – and things went on fairly well. I quickly learned that running a small business meant solving one problem after another. Some of my clients were slow in paying (so what else is new) and I had to tread carefully. I didn’t want to win the battle (by insisting on payment right now) and lose the war (by being told my services were no longer needed). I ran the business for 16 years.

During those years I developed a second business on the side, in real estate. I bought a small apartment house, then another and another, managing them as income properties.

I bought an old building and fixed it up as a condominium and sold the units. I remodeled a couple of other buildings. Stimulating and exciting work. Property-management isn’t easy but I was happy to be doing it. No business that I know of is easy. In the late 80’s I got squeezed by the big recession, and that wiped out a lot of the paper profits I had racked up in real estate. But I stuck at it for a few more years.

Running any business successfully is a challenge. It’s fun during the honeymoon stage, when everything is new and you can’t wait to get to work in the morning. What you find out fast is that staying in business and making the business prosper means solving one problem after another. Sixteen years at the helm of my public relations business was enough. I looked forward to a relaxed retirement. I found a buyer a year after turning 60. And gradually I sold the income properties.

So I retired, but not really. All the unaccustomed leisure quickly palled and I looked for stimulus. What happened is that I went to an Episcopal conference center in nearby Connecticut whose main program was weekend retreats. But not for a weekend conference. I am not an Episcopalian, though I admire and like Episcopalians greatly. I went to attend a week-long educational and recreational summer program for seniors. I was barely a senior then but was welcomed warmly.

The center was large and ran nine different programs. A small one was run by a young priest. Its name was Vacation Lodge. It featured informal courses in the morning, then in the afternoon you’d go for a swim in the beautiful tree-lined lake at the foot of the hill. Or take out a canoe or a Sunfish sailboat. Or hike one of the several trails through the surrounding forest.

The meals and the accommodations were quite plain and good,  but it was so interesting to meet the other guests. Active people. We’d get to know one another and have nice talks. After dinner there would be a simple but surprisingly satisfying chapel service, not compulsory, and afterward people would assemble for square dancing or a talk by somebody, and on Friday evening, the final evening, everyone would gather for a farewell party.

 I loved the program. I met and was impressed by the director. And I liked the young priest who led our summer program. To my surprise I found myself working there!

The young priest told me he was leaving to take further studies. Back home I found myself bored. I got an idea. I called the director and asked if the young priest had left. Soon, he said. I asked for the job. He was taken aback and explained that he recruited a young priest or a seminarian to handle it. I was neither. But I was cheap. I’d be a volunteer…just room and board. “Well, let’s give it a try,” he said.

A wonderful experience. In the morning I and another volunteer taught informal courses. One which I taught was Pencil Portraiture, a hobby of mine. A couple of times I taught Canoeing, another interest.

Every afternoon after classes, I’d put on my skipper’s cap with the gold braid and become captain of our Love Boat. It – excuse me, she -was just a crude 16-footer. A platform bolted onto catamaran hulls. She was powered by two tiny trolling motors, electric, which at full power would get us up to two miles an hour if we weren’t fighting a wind.

I’d load a dozen people on board, mostly ladies. They would sit facing one another on long benches along the port and starboard sides. We’d glide up and down the lovely lake, singing old favorites, enjoying the sunshine the breeze, and watching the summer-camp kids frolicking in the water as we cruised by their part of the lake.

Now the further surprise for me: the center also had an Elderhostel program, very successful, one of the biggest in New England, with seniors arriving every Sunday for five or six-day programs, depending on the season. I became the director of that program.

It ran virtually every week for 26 weeks, from spring into autumn. Such interesting work. I was the host for the week, presiding at opening night, at all the meals, and at other functions. I developed new courses and recruited teachers.

I took care of problems, such as taking a lady with chest pain to a hospital in the night, or an old man whose aggressive flirting was deemed offensive. And I was having fun myself. I went swimming every afternoon, canoed or rowed often, walked the trails in my off time, made many new friends. And now I was getting paid a small salary. And in my winters off, I traveled a lot.

 I had a little VW Westphalia.. That’s the small camper. Loved it. Took a trip along the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and the Mississippi to New Orleans. Alone. I made a four-week trip through Mexico, and a seven-week one there the following year. All the way down to Acapulco, and across the mountains through Guadalajara and the other colonial cities to the Gulf of Mexico, then up to Texas and home.

Another year I made a complete circle of the United States. Again, all alone. And I was writing again. I wrote many articles for my old paper, the Sunday Telegram, in Worcester. I was having a grand retirement.

When I started at the center, I thought it would be for just a year, maybe two. I remained for eight years, till I approached 70. I felt it was time to quit, if I was going to have a true retirement. I was a wonderful chapter in my life.

Oh, two other things. It’s in my third year there that I met milady Annabelle. She had come all the way from California for an Elderhostel week. It was her first Elderhostel and of course she had doubts. She had chosen our place because her son Jim, a medical doctor, lived nearby. If she didn’t like it, she’d call Jim and ask him to pick her up. We met when I was looking for someone to play ping-pong with.   Well, a spark was ignited. We became a committed couple.

We k a trip to Europe. We got the idea of organizing groups of seniors and accompanying them on package tours through Europe. We called our little business “Off We Go with John and Annabelle.” We did well, taking groups to various countries. Lots of fun. But then came the enormous shock of 9 /11. That put an end to our little enterprise.

People didn’t want to go abroad. And certificates of deposit, so important to so many seniors, were paying much lower rates of interest. Anyway, it was time for us to quit.

One other thing. Shortly after I started at the Episcopal center, I began writing feature stories for the Main Street News, a nice little weekly serving that area.

I was doing again the work that I had done as a young man. My stories were all straightforward pieces about good people doing interesting things. Nothing controversial. Just wholesome and interesting stories which some felt inspiring.

Examples: A man who spends three years rebuilding a classic sailboat. A popular woman minister who longs for a child and finally goes to China to adopt a little girl. A black librarian who discovers she is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. A man in my town who is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. I’ve written scores of such stories. I have enjoyed writing just about each and every one.

A few years ago, I started an occasional column, “Senior Moments.” No, it’s not about losing my glasses and finally finding them…perched on my nose. I picked it as a playful title. I’ve been able to vent on a number of subjects, and people have enjoyed it, or so they tell me.

It won a prize or two in the annual contests of the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists. When I got on the plane for Tokyo as the first stop on my global trip, the column became the natural home for my regular reports back.

Now about my two biggest trips.  The first was my trip around the world. I did it for my 75th birthday. I wanted milady Annabelle to come with me.  She could not. Too taxing, though she would have jumped at it earlier.

So I set off  with a friend.  He started with me, had to abort in Hong Kong. That’s when I said, “Dammit!’ How could I go on alone? Daunting. But I felt I had to try. A success. That led to my book, “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!”

Then a great surprise. A new Chinese friend that I made in Africa–a remarkable young man named Wu Bin–published that book in China, in Chinese (Mandarin)! What an incredible happening that was. Beyond anything I ever imagined happening to me.

He invited me to the kick-off in Shanghai. I went, with my sister Lucie—not possible for Annabelle. That led to new travels and a new book, “Around Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83!”

Both books are a fine read and an inspiration to anybody to aspires to simple, see-the-real-thing travel. I have filled them with tips and advice, picked up the hard way. I am proud of the two and recommend them.

Also unexpected was how I got to enjoy this corner of Connecticut. We call it the Connecticut Estuary. It’s where the unusually beautiful Connecticut River glides into Long Island Sound, which is an arm of the Atlantic, of course. Unusually beautiful because it is still natural — not lined by the petroleum tanks and warehouses and industries which are usual along big waterways. This happened because the Connecticut is too shallow for deep-draft ships. 

It is a quiet area of small and attractive towns and villages. I became familiar with it through my work. Every week I led our Elderhostelers on a tour of the area, which they loved. And my newspaper interviews led me to sections I never would have gotten to explore otherwise, often beautiful and interesting.

I felt at home here. I threw out an anchor and bought a condo apartment in what used to be an old piano factory, would you believe?

It was quiet and charming, with a view of the peaceful grounds, and  only a 10-minute walk from the center of our very nice town.

Annabelle had a beautiful condo of her own in her home state of California, in the coastal city of Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles. So we went back and forth in spring and fall, enjoying our seasons on both coasts.

 Life became hectic — my months of traveling around the world and sending back detailed newspaper accounts, the many more months of writing my book and publishing it, and now the new challenge of bringing it to an appreciative audience. All while catching up with the many demands of busy everyday life. Not complaining. All of it has been of my choosing and doing.

Yes, now I am living on the central coast of California. I am feeling right at home in Morro Bay. I got a strong start as the host of my own show, “Gabbing with Old Guy John,” on 97.3 fm, “The Rock,” So named because of the huge monolith at the very entrance to the harbor.

Now things have quieted down. I continue my blog, writing  about whatever catches my fancy and I hope yours, giving a talk now and then, and enjoying the mild climate and the interesting neighborhood I’ve settled in. And, paramount, the love and attention of my daughter Monique and son-in-law, David.

I’m now in my 89th year. Never expected to live this long. Still savoring life. Still keeping busy. Lucky me.

One of my core beliefs these many years, as stated in my books, is, “If you’re not making your life an adventure, you’re short-changing yourself.”

I truly believe that. Have practiced it with gusto. And recommend it to you.

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