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Triumph trumps adversity in writer’s homespun voice

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She has never met Sharon Randall. But when Hope Elementary music assistant Nancy Banta talks about the nationally syndicated columnist, it’s like she is referring to a dear friend.

After all, Randall has been in Banta’s life for a long time.

“I started reading Sharon Randall back in the '90s,” Banta said.

What caught the educator’s attention were Randall’s columns about cancer.

Randall’s first husband struggled with and then died from the disease. Banta lost her father to cancer.

“I just clicked with her,” Banta said.

Banta initially wrote to the columnist asking for an autograph. She didn’t get one, but she did get a mention in Randall’s column.

Fellow Hope Elementary teacher Julia Swegman saw Randall sign off a column with a slightly cryptic note to Nancy B. of Hope.

“Was that you?” Swegman asked Banta.

It was indeed.

Earlier this year, Banta was discussing Randall’s columns with a neighbor, and Swegman and Banta decided they would find comfort in meeting the columnist in person.

But Randall wasn’t speaking anywhere nearby.

If they couldn’t go to Sharon Randall, Banta thought, why not bring her to Hope?

Her roots

Sharon Randall’s columns appear in 400 newspapers and have netted her an estimated 6 million readers nationwide.

But earlier, she struggled against adversity, growing up modestly in a large family in Landrum, South Carolina.

She moved to California with her first husband. When her third child started kindergarten in 1982, she took a job in the Monterey County Herald’s library. She worked her way into the newspaper’s features department.

Her column, “Bay Window,” began in 1991 and included items about everyday people and ordinary things. A collection of her columns, largely focused on experiences during her first husband’s battles with cancer, was published as a book, “Birdbaths and Paper Cranes.”

“The matters of the heart are pretty universal,” Randall said, speaking from Monterey.

In her column published in the Aug. 17 edition of The Republic, Randall announced her upcoming visit to Hope, a town of about 2,000 people.

“In September,” she wrote, “I’m to speak in several places in Indiana, including an elementary school in a small town called Hope.”

Funding her visit

Banta had never arranged such an event before. She and Swegman began pecking away at it, little by little.

Banta and Randall corresponded, and arrangements were made.

Swegman wrote grant proposals, and the money was acquired — from the Heritage Fund, from town of Hope Economic Development Income Tax funds, from the Bartholomew County Library Associates, from Hope PTO and from an individual donor, Julia Del Genio.

Larry Simpson, publisher of the Hope Star-Journal, was on the EDIT committee that approved some of the funds for Randall’s visit.

“She has a great message that we think will be enjoyed by both residents and visitors as well as to the students at the school,” Simpson said. “Her message has a lot to do with her own history and the fact that she has risen to the top of the syndicated columnist charts. If you set your mind to it, you can do it.”

It’s a triumph over adversity that’s related in a homespun voice.

The wait

A classroom at Hope Elementary is already decorated with white cranes and a birdbath for Randall’s visit. Banta has enlarged the cover of Randall’s book, “Birdbaths and Paper Cranes,” and displayed it in the window. Copies of the book have been distributed around the school.

Randall will speak there Sept. 17 to kindergartners and first-graders in the morning, followed by a class for second- through sixth-graders; the older students will discuss writing.

“I want her speech to impact their writing,” Swegman said. “I want them to know that their words have meaning to other people; I want it to inspire them to have an impact on other people’s lives from what they write.”

While the school visit is not open to the general public, two other local appearances by Randall are set for Sept. 16 at the Bartholomew County Public Library in Columbus and Sept. 17 at the Hope Moravian Church.

“She’s a normal person writing about normal stuff,” said Mary Clare Speckner, the library’s adult programming coordinator. “You’d like to have her over for coffee. She’s just cool. We’re excited to host her.”

Randall hopes people will take away a message that she feels unites her readers in the first place.

“We are all more alike than we are different,” she said. “We get through the hard times by propping each other up. And people have an incredible capacity for caring. We have to be involved in schools, communities and churches — and that goodness. Newspapers try to present community, but it whispers — it doesn’t shout. The horrible things and the people who do horrible things shout.

“You just have to listen to the whispers.”

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