It’s been a long, cold winter here in southwestern Ohio, just like so much of the United States. I didn’t venture out much when I didn’t have to, but I certainly enjoyed one evening in late January. On January 23, storyteller, musician, author and filmmaker Rick Sowash visited the Wyoming Historical Society in Wyoming, Ohio as guest speaker.
Rick’s name may not be familiar outside the Buckeye state, but in Ohio he is well known. For decades thousands of Ohio children have enjoyed his storytelling performances about Ohio’s historic figures, along with tall tales and animal stories. Rick told the crowd he has visited over 2,000 schools and performed for an estimated 750,000 children in the years of his storytelling career. In addition, he has written a number of books, his most recent what he calls a “comical autobiography” entitled The Boy Who Would Be Famous. Other titles include Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and Character, Ripsnorting Whoppers: A Book of Ohio Tall Tales, and Critters, Flitters & Spitters: Amazing Ohio Animal Tales. He has made two films: one on the art of storytelling and another on the life and legacy of Johnny Appleseed. Viewers can see all of the works he has available at http://www.sowash.com/
Rick Sowash is a man who loves and appreciates his native state, but he appreciates other places too. Another interesting work in his list of publications is The Moderately Lazy Biker’s Guide to Litchfield County (and just beyond). This work is a description of biking trails in northwest Connecticut’s Litchfield County. Rick and his wife usually visit the region yearly to house-sit for some friends, and discovered there was interest in someone creating a local bicycle trails guide. The book is also peppered with quotations from Odell Shepard (1884-1967), a Connecticut scholar, poet, novelist, outdoorsman, and biographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1938 for his book Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott. Shepard loved his adopted state.
I can’t help seeing a connection between Rick Sowash and Odell Shepard. Both could be described as Renaissance men with a love for nature, and Shepard, like Rick Sowash, was an artist who held elected office—he was Connecticut’s Lieutenant Governor from 1941-1943. Rick Sowash served for several years as a Richland County Commissioner and has said he is probably the only classical musician ever elected to a public office in the United States! Rick also discovered a lost manuscript of Shepherd’s and published it. The book is entitled The Cabin Down The Glen, and it is about Shepard’s years living in a log cabin in western Connecticut during the Great Depression.
But there is yet another side to Rick Sowash. His main focus is music, and he has composed more than 400 classical music pieces for orchestras, choirs, soloists and chamber music groups. His compositions have been performed all over the world. Two of his fifteen trios for clarinet, cello, and piano were performed by a Riviera-based trio in 2003 at the Cannes Film Festival. The same group of musicians recorded the same performances for a CD called Enchantement d’avril. He has also had works premiered in Paris, St. Petersburg, and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Now 64 years old, he is self-supporting as musician, author, publisher and storyteller, but he’s also held some interesting jobs along the way, including church choir director, innkeeper, house painter, and theater manager. In the early 1990s Rick, his wife Jo, and their children Shenandoah and Chapman relocated to Cincinnati so their children could attend the city’s distinguished School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Rick operates his music, storytelling and publishing businesses out of his home in the Cincinnati’s Mount Auburn neighborhood. Shenandoah is now a poet and teacher in Washington, D.C., and Chapman is a trombonist and chef.
As the crowd streamed in for his talk in Wyoming, Rick played a variety of songs on the piano and talked some with those in the front rows. At one point he played a selection of old-time silent movie background music. After being introduced he drew the crowd’s attention to a large banner behind him and discussed some of the various Ohio heroes pictured there. This banner is a reproduction of the cover of Heroes of Ohio, and it portrays the twenty-three heroes of the book within the geographical outline of the state.
Rick told the crowd that he wants “to bring history to life, and I do it by telling stories. History stories can be marvelously exciting, suspenseful, and even funny.” He added that history-related storytelling was part of his family legacy. His grandfather, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary “told history stories.” Rick said part of his mission is to “pass along stories of Ohio to the kids of Ohio.”
Rick’s presentation involved several different levels of storytelling. He talked about his work as a storyteller, and then demonstrated how he might tell the story of one of the heroes pictured on his banner: John Parker, a free black man who lived in Ripley, Ohio and regularly helped slaves cross the Ohio River en route to freedom in Canada. After finishing his story, Rick discussed the art of storytelling and asked the audience what they noticed about the sensory-based imagery and verbal effects he used to bring the story alive.
He told some stories about his own life. As mentioned earlier, he has recently published a book called The Boy Who Would Be Famous, a memoir of his childhood from ages five to ten and his desire to become famous. One of his friends had told him about the World Book Encyclopedia and how it contained knowledge about “everything.” Rick came to the conclusion that the story of his own family should be there. His disappointment upon finding no mention of the Sowash family in the encyclopedia—especially since one of his grandfathers had invented the oven door window–inspired a wide range of activities–some might call them “shenanigans”– to acquire fame.
Another story concerned writing his first song. A dedicated music teacher played an important role in the tale, and Rick told not only the story of how he came to write the song—which was performed at a school concert—but the steps in composing it, giving the audience an idea of how musical composition happens. He spoke as well about the value of having good teachers. This was a pivotal event in his life, and he continued composing throughout high school and later studied music composition and comparative literature in college.
He also spoke some about a number of the figures on the banner. One is Johnny Appleseed, and during his early years of storytelling he often performed as Johnny Appleseed and still does on occasion. All of the heroes featured on the banner are also in his book Heroes of Ohio: True Tales of Courage and Character. They range from those famous worldwide, like Toni Morrison, Tecumseh and Neil Armstrong, to the lesser known: Baldemar Velazquez, who helped end child migrant labor in Ohio; Granville Woods, “The Black Edison,” and Rodger Young, a Medal of Honor winner in World War II. He also included Ulysses Grant, but not for being a Civil War general or President. He writes about Grant’s monumental effort to complete his Memoirs before his death from cancer. Grant had lost all of his money to a swindler and worked relentlessly to complete his book so he could provide for his family.
Rick finished up his presentation by telling the story of one of the lesser known people in his book: Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone and in one season. Her story is unique. In 1955, at the age of 68, a grandmother, she decided she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. With only a small supply of food, a shower curtain as poncho, a pair of Keds sneakers for walking shoes, she hiked the entire trail, enduring difficulties of many kinds. She later hiked the trail again in 1960 and 1963 and later walked the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. There is now a trail named for her in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park that runs from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave.
I had never heard of Emma Gatewood until that evening, but her story seems representative of what Rick Sowash wants to do with his storytelling. In his book Heroes of Ohio, he writes, “We need stories of heroes, both famous and unknown. Their stories remind us to try to be like them, to put courage and character at work in our own lives.” He emphasizes that we all can be heroes, and that heroism comes in many forms. Emma Gatewood didn’t allow age or gender to get in the way of her goals. She was an ordinary person who dared to be extraordinary, and her life is a reminder that you’re never too old to display courage and character, and follow your own heart.
It did me good to get out and hear Rick Sowash. It seems to me he has demonstrated courage and character in becoming one of the unique artists in our region. In an age of specialization, he has worn many hats: composer, author, storyteller, publisher, musician, and he has been successful in all of these areas. Managing all of these roles without becoming scattered is an accomplishment in itself. But at the same time he has also managed to create a rich and prolific body of work as a composer. He also identifies himself as an “outside composer,” meaning he is not affiliated with any academic institution. Here too he has gone his own way and made his own success. Finally, he is an artist whose work has reached international audiences, and yet he loves his native state and spends entire days working with school children.
Young creatives, take note–there’s more than one way to be a successful artist.
The boy who would become famous has become his own man, and for me, that kind of success trumps “fame” any time.