By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
When Wally Graham was 10 years old, a relative introduced him to a neighbor as “weak-in-the-head.” That encounter and others left him with a diminished sense of self for much of his life.
“The worst thing you can do to a child is make them feel inferior,” said Graham, now in his late 80s.
Many years later, by the time he had kids and grandkids of his own, Graham wanted to do something that would instill self-confidence in his growing family. He already made weekly visits to check in on his granddaughters Julie and Jennifer, but one Sunday he decided to make it something extra special.
“I sat down and wrote a poem and drew an illustration to go along with it,” Graham said.
The poem was called Mister Toad and told the story of the titular toad regaling a bear with his feelings of inferiority compared to other animal friends.
“I wanted the girls to learn something from the poem, and I thought that kids would listen to animals more than they would people,” Graham said.
The poem was a hit, but Graham returned to visit the girls the next week empty-handed.
“Boy, they were all over me for it,” he said.
It was quite a while before he visited again without a new poem and illustration in-hand. Despite having never taken an art class or considering himself much of a writer, Graham amassed dozens of them and kept each one.
“Each one is kind of its own thing, but the idea was getting them to think about the lesson, then we started thinking about it together and it brought us closer together,” Graham said.
Twenty years later, Graham met Bud Christopherson at Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community. Graham showed Christopherson his collection of children’s poems and associated illustrations.
“I was so impressed with his poems and pictures that, for three years, it’s been my mission to get them published,” Christopherson said. “Wally didn’t put up much of a fight, but I’m a pretty good talker.”
Christopherson approached numerous publishing houses with the project, and generally got rave reviews for Graham’s work, but no commitment to publish. The long and winding road led them to Outskirts Press in Parker, Colo.
“It was tough, I know nothing about the internet and the cleaning lady at our retirement home had to help me with that. You would have thought I worked at OfficeMax since I spent so much time there, but they were a big help,” Christopherson said.
The hard work paid off in the end. Graham’s first book, Wally’s Friends, is already available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, and three more are in the offing.
Graham and Christopherson think there are several morals to their story: listen to the nagging kids, never feel too old to try something new, something or other about the importance of friendship and seeing each other’s uniqueness.
“Wally is a terrific human being even though he doesn’t always believe it,” Christopherson said.
“I never would have done it without him,” said Graham. “I would have gotten disgusted in the first 10 minutes of trying.”
It’s almost too easy to draw parallels between their story and Graham’s first poem about a toad and a bear, but the resemblance is too precious to ignore.
That very first poem, written more than 20 years ago, ends with the line:
“So children, don’t be blue.
There’s something special about every one of you.”