After a career of almost a quarter century at the St. Joseph Public Library, Will Stuck ’00 enthralled children at his last story time this past spring and embarked on expanding his public speaking/professional storytelling business.
Stuck says he will continue to perform for children and make them laugh, but he will also speak at conferences and workshops across the country about how to be a better communicator.
“As human beings, our oldest art form is storytelling, and all other art forms spring from that,” said Stuck, who graduated from Missouri Western with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. “That’s how we connect.”
The decision to leave his longtime career as manager of the children’s department at the East Hills branch and go out on his own was several years in the making, but about two years ago, he set up a website and a Facebook page, and sent out eight emails “to test the waters.” The first year, Stuck generated enough business that he made about half his salary. The second year, he didn’t send out any emails, gave fewer performances and made even more money.
But he still wasn’t quite ready to leave the library.
“Every time I had an argument with myself about leaving and decided to stay, something would happen that made me think I should leave.” When he’d introduce performers for library programs, they would tell him that he should be doing what they were doing. Audience members at conferences where he spoke were telling him how much his talks changed their lives and careers.
Finally, he says, his excitement outweighed his fear, and his last day at the library was June 2, his 24-year work anniversary. But it still wasn’t easy. His wife, Crystal, works for the library. He said he’ll also miss all his co-workers and the families that he has met over the years. After such a long job tenure, some of Stuck’s earlier story time attendees grew up and had children of their own that were listening to him bring books to life.
By the time Stuck worked his last day at the library, he had already lined up speaking engagements at several conferences and more than 30 performances at libraries in three states. He will also serve as emcee at the Alumni Association’s awards banquet in October.
His goal has always been, and will continue to be, to make kids happy and to instill a love of reading in them. “I like that kids got library cards because I came to their school and acted silly,” he says.
Stuck, a St. Joseph native, started at the library a week after he graduated from high school. A few years later, he started reading to children.
“The first few times, I was terrible. But by the third or fourth week, I started thinking about people who read to me that I enjoyed.”
He thought about his family (“loaded with storytellers”) and his fourth-grade teacher. “I was the class clown and always got in trouble for telling stories, so we rarely saw eye to eye. But when she read to the class, she was my favorite teacher.”
So he changed his technique, and story time attendance soared. Over the years, he says he developed too many programs to mention. At first, they were just for children, but then he added teen-agers to his audience because he didn’t want them to feel left out. (“I like to think I was ahead of the duct tape movement.”)
“I wanted to make the library a part of the community, not just a place in the community. I did everything I could to serve every age and help them understand the importance of the library.”
Oftentimes, he challenged older kids who weren’t so sure they liked to read. “‘If you come to the library, I guarantee you that I will find a book you love,’ I told them. Some took me up on it and I did it.” And, most rewarding, he says, is that some of those he challenged became longtime library cardholders.
Speaking at a conference recently, Stuck ended his talk by telling the story of “The Tale of Despereaux,” by Kate DiCamillo, and used the following quotation from the book: “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
“That says it all,” said Will Stuck, the storyteller.
What, you may ask, are the favorites of someone who has read thousands of books? Stuck didn’t have to think about it for very long:
Favorite adult book: “I own the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, and have read all of them more than 30 times.”
Favorite juvenile book: “’Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.’ She wrote in a character that you really, really hate (Dolores Umbridge). Most authors can’t do that.”
Favorite kids book: “It’s a tie. ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ and growing up I loved ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion.’”