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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 01:57 am

Banned Valentine

English teacher keeps James Jones’ legacy alive in Robinson

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Helen Howe, 81, a close friend of Lowney and Harry Handy and James Jones, is a founding member of the James Jones Literary Society.
PHOTO BY JOHN MONTRE
Untitled Document Helen Howe’s audience on this bone-chillingly cold day is an English class of about two-dozen seniors sequestered in the library of Robinson High School in eastern Illinois. To get their attention, the snowy-haired octogenarian pulls a well-preserved issue of the now-defunct Saturday Evening Post from her valise and holds it up. The page she displays depicts an embarrassed boy buying a heart-shaped box of Valentine’s chocolates from a smirking clerk as two other youngsters snicker in the background. The illustration accompanies the James Jones short story “The Valentine,” which was published in the magazine on Feb. 16, 1963. Howe knows the coming-of-age tale well, having taught it to high-school and college classes for years. She also knows the true identities of its fictionalized characters and the actual locations of its scenes because she has lived in Robinson for more than 50 years. Jones, the noted author of From Here to Eternity, was born and raised here. He graduated from Robinson High in 1939 before joining the Army. Within two years of his enlistment he witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and saw combat on the island of Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific. Howe became acquainted with Jones and his mentor, Lowney Handy, after the war, through her late husband, Sylvanus “Tinks” Howe, a friend and classmate of the famed writer.
“When Tinks and I were married, in 1950, they were the first two people I met,” Howe says.
Twenty-five years after graduating from high school, in 1972, Howe enrolled at Lincoln Trail College, in Robinson. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Illinois University, in Charleston, she returned to teach English at the community college she attended. She also helped found the James Jones Literary Society. As part of its effort to keep Jones’ literary legacy alive, that organization sponsors an annual essay-writing contest, based on Jones’ short story, at Robinson High and other nearby schools. The annual awards are presented on Valentine’s Day. As she analyzes elements of the story’s sentimental plot for her young audience, Howe stops to explain what a dime store was. Her listeners have never heard of Woolworth’s. Most have little idea of Jones’ prominent place in American literature, either. So a few years ago, with the help of a cooperative high-school English teacher, Howe introduced one his stories into the curriculum. She says she found it disgraceful that the works of an author of Jones’ caliber had until then been excluded from the curriculum by the administration at the high school he attended. “The reason they didn’t want them to read them was because they didn’t approve of some of the words he used,” she says. “Mamas didn’t want their babies reading that kind of stuff.”
More than 50 years ago, Howe sat at a kitchen table in Robinson with Jones and Handy, removing four-letter words from the galley sheets of From Here to Eternity. Scribner’s, the publisher, wanted fewer vulgarities uttered by Jones’ fictional soldiers, but Jones persuaded his publisher to retain most of the original dialogue. Times have changed, but not that much. The school district in nearby Oblong, Ill., Howe says, still bans The Valentine.
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