Twenty locals visited The John Updike Childhood Home on the first Saturday of limited regular hours (12-2pm), Director of Education Maria Lester reported.
With a Christmas tree in the parlor the feeling was festive, and a half dozen children also stopped by to drop off ornaments they made for the First Annual Ornament Competition. Many of the entries will be displayed on the tree and around the house, with the winner receiving $50 and two runners-up receiving $25 each.
The contest is open to all Berks County students in grades K-5, whether public, private, virtual, or home schooled. Children are to create an ornament for the tree by using one or more of these Updike-related symbols/motifs: centaur, rabbit, books, typewriter, art/palette, church steeple, pigeon, or basketball.
The entries will be judged by Lester and the docents who have volunteered to staff the museum on Saturdays. Entries may also be dropped off at the Updike house this coming Saturday, Dec. 11 during open hours.
They say good things come in small packages. Surprising things, too. When Updike house Director of Education Maria Lester opened a package recently, she found a smiling John Updike ornament. On the back of the ornament: “Ho Ho Ho! Casting off of J.U.’s gravestone in Plow Church cemetery.”
It was from Michael Updike, a slate sculptor who carved the marker for his father’s Plow Church cemetery gravesite.
“I know the ornament competition is for children but somehow I couldn’t resist,” Michael wrote. “Hope this isn’t too creepy and gives small children nightmares.”
Unless the little ones have been walking through that cemetery in Plowville, all they’ll see is a smiling face on a tree that suggests it really is the most wonderful time of the year. And from now on, this ornament will be a part of the annual tree-trimming tradition at the Updike house.
Maria Lester, Director of Education for The John Updike Childhood Home, said that the museum will be open to the public with regular hours on Saturdays from 12-2 p.m., beginning Dec. 4, 2021. The only exceptions will be major holiday weekends, when the museum will be closed. Admission is $5 for age 16 and older.
The Hemingway Birthplace in Oak Park, Ill. has successfully operated with an all-volunteer staff for many years, and Lester said that so far 13 Berks County residents have volunteered to serve as docents. Among them are college professors, artists, high school teachers, and historians. What they have in common is an interest in Updike and local history.
“They’re all excited about the museum and really impressed by the exhibits,” Lester said. “They’re a good group.”
The John Updike Childhood Home is owned and operated by The John Updike Society, a 501c3 nonprofit organization with members in 17 countries and 35 states. The house has been meticulously restored to look as it did during 1932-45, when Pulitzer Prizewinning writer John Updike lived here with his parents and maternal grandparents. The museum features 10 rooms of exhibits that tell the story of Updike’s life and literary legacy and the influence that Berks County had on his writing. Many of the objects on display are one-of-a-kind and have personal connections to Updike.
Updike and first-wife Mary played recorders in a church group, and his are on display here. So is the chair he used for writing until the age of 70, and a maple four-poster rope bed that was painted by a very young Updike and his mother, as well as original notes and drawings in Updike’s hand.
There are also items that will be of interest to lovers of art and folk art, including a coverlet made in Berks County that has been in the Updike family for more than 170 years, a coffee table made from shutters salvaged from the Berks County almshouse before it was demolished, and an original watercolor painting of Shillington High School as it looked when Updike attended junior high and high school there. The frame of that painting was made from the door frame from the home room of Wesley Updike, the author’s father and a beloved junior high school math teacher. Updike’s first art teacher, Clint Shilling, lived across the street, and items from his studio are on display—including a micro-detailed painting of a Civil War battle.
The John Updike Childhood Home is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and has a Pennsylvania Historic Marker.
Alvernia University professor Sue Guay, who has served as director of The John Updike Childhood Home since October 2017, has stepped down from that post to concentrate on sweeping changes in the communications program at Alvernia. Under new president John R. Loyack, Alvernia has created a second campus in downtown Reading and a brand new communications building with all sorts of amenities. The move from Alvernia’s current campus to the new building and all of the other adjustments proved to be all-consuming.
“Sue stepped up and agreed to serve in the volunteer position of director when we needed her to, and for that I will always be grateful,” said James Plath, president of the John Updike Society, which owns the childhood home.
“Sue did all sorts of things as director—everything from ordering blinds for all the windows and meeting repair people at the house, to going through exhibit materials with me and responding to security alarms,” Plath said. “Volunteer work of this nature is what keeps a project like this moving forward.”
Guay, who has taught communications at Alvernia for 20+ years, was the impetus behind Alvernia University reaching out to the society shortly after it was formed. At Guay’s suggestion, Alvernia offered to host the first John Updike Society Biennial Conference and was instrumental in the running of that first successful conference in October 2010. Later, when the society returned to Reading and Shillington for their third conference, Guay served as site director. More recently, she served as director of the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference. The society honored her with plaques for her work on both of those successful conferences.
Moving forward, Education Director Maria Lester will take on the additional responsibility of scheduling and supervising volunteers for tours so that the museum, which had its grand opening on October 2, can establish regular hours on Saturdays. Lester teaches at Reading High School and Albright College.
John Trimble will continue as Property Manager, and Dave Ruoff, who rents office space for his business in the single-story annex of the Updike house, will continue as Docent also in charge of receiving.
Plath remains the contact person for general questions about the house or society.
Updike’s Shillington Jr. High and High School, now renamed, are “all in” for the grand opening of The John Updike Childhood Home. Governor Mifflin School District donated items pertaining to their most famous alum—John Updike—that will be on display as people tour the house for the first time on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. GMSD will also provide meeting space for the morning academic sessions and afternoon panel for the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference on Saturday.
For their part, The John Updike Society, which owns and operates the house-museum, opened up the family panel to include Governor Mifflin alums returning for homecoming, and the plan moving forward is to make the house a resource for faculty and students.
It’s the kind of partnership that would have pleased Updike, because students will be involved as volunteers, and students who aspire to write will get the chance to interact with some of the society members who have published books. In the future, both GMSD Superintendent Bill McKay, now a member of the advisory board of The John Updike Childhood Home, and society president James Plath see the partnership extending well into the future. Teachers can use the house for classes, tours, events, and projects yet to be imagined. It’s a win-win situation for Updike’s beloved Shillington.
After a year of postponement due to COVID-19, the Pennsylvania Historic Marker Dedication Ceremony and Grand Opening of The John Updike Childhood Home, 117 Philadelphia Ave., in Shillington, Pa., will take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 2, 2021. The event is free and open to the public on a space-available, first-come-first-served basis. Masks will be required for both the outdoor ceremony and in-house tours, in accordance with current CDC recommendations.
The John Updike Childhood Home is owned by The John Updike Society, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike—and, through The John Updike Childhood Home, preserving the history and telling the story of John Updike’s relationship with Shillington, as well as the influence that Berks County had on his literary works.
The dedication and opening have been scheduled to coincide with the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference, hosted by Alvernia University. Conference registrants and honored guests will have reserved seating, but there will also be seating available to the public, as well as standing room.
Following the marker dedication and unveiling, the National Registry of Historic Places plaque will be uncovered and the house will be opened for free tours between 1:30-3:00 p.m.
The opening has been a long time coming. The society purchased the house in August 2012 with plans to turn it into a museum and literary site that would appeal to Updike fans and also local residents who wish to know more about one of Berks County’s most famous people. The purchase was made possible by a generous donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation.
In 2015, the society hired R.J. Doerr Co. of Easton, Pa. to restore the home back to the way it looked during Updike’s years in the house—1932-45—and the meticulous restoration, based on architectural “footprints,” Updike’s writings, interviews with family and friends, and comparisons to similar houses in the area, was completed in 2019.
The John Updike Childhood Home features exhibits that tell the story of Updike’s early years in Berks County, as well as the important influence that Pennsylvania had on his fiction and poetry.
Membership in The John Updike Society is open to anyone with an interest in Updike. Members come from 17 different countries and more than 30 states. Although many are university professors or high school teachers, just as many are people who appreciate Updike’s writings. See The John Updike Society for more details.
The John Updike Society has been advised by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that because of Covid 19 we need to postpone the October 3 unveiling of an Official State Historical Marker and plaque celebrating the John Updike Childhood Home’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. When it appears safe again to do so, the event will be rescheduled and announced to the public.
The National Register plaque will be affixed to the side of the house; the historic marker, a sign that will be staked in the front yard near the corner, will read:
JOHN UPDIKE (1932-2009)
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of
America’s most noted authors, Updike lived
here until age thirteen. He was inspired
by his mother, an amateur writer, and his
childhood surroundings, which he included
in many works over his 50-year career.
Best known for his “Rabbit” quartet of
novels, Updike was also acclaimed for his
short stories and essays. He was honored
by two US presidents for his contributions
to American literature and culture.
The New York City-based PECO Foundation has continued their multi-year support of The John Updike Society’s efforts to preserve The John Updike Childhood Home and turn it into a museum. This year’s donation was $5000.
PECO Foundation’s principals, Constance and H. Roemer McPhee, were honored in 2017 with The John Updike Society Distinguished Service Award at the society’s meeting in Boston at the American Literature Association Conference.