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Novel by SMHS alum based on childhood in Springs

12/16/2016 | Comments

For many, writing a novel is a lifelong dream. This year John Wickersham, a 1957 graduate of St. Mary’s High School, became a novelist almost by accident when his novel, “Morning Is Always Nigh: A Colorado Boyhood,” was published.

“I might be called an accidental novelist, because I have never harbored the desire to write fiction,” said Wickersham, who is a professor of philosophy at Maryville University in St. Louis, where he has taught for the last 54 years. “But, I must say that actually holding a copy of my little book in hand makes me happy. If it comes to nothing else, it will be an enduring gift to my children, grandchildren, and my past students, of whom there are over 10,000.”

The book jacket describes “Morning Is Always Nigh” as the story of Dan Gray and his two older siblings and their remarkable adventures in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies in the 1950s. The Gray children attend Wickersham’s alma mater, St. Mary’s Catholic School, the forerunner of St. Mary’s High School. Wickersham attended St. Mary’s during his elementary school years and again all through high school.

“The school and its community of nuns, priests, kids, and families was the life-world of my formative years,” Wickersham said. “So, I could hardly write about a my ‘Colorado boyhood’ without referring to St. Mary’s. I have spent 54 years now in higher education as a professor of philosophy. It was at St. Mary’s that the twig was bent that became the tree of my life.”

The school is mentioned several times throughout the book, as are some of the sisters who taught there during Wickersham’s time at St. Mary’s. Sister Mary John has a prominent role in the development of the Gray siblings. Wickersham said the nuns are the only characters whose real names are used in the story. It’s a distinction that was done with purpose.

“I wanted to honor them for their sacrifices on behalf of all of us, their students, to honor them for all they did for us and gave to us,” he said. “Sister Mary John, in particular, was important to my education. It was in her English classes as a junior and senior that I consolidated my love for poetry. She made language come alive for me. She made it ‘okay’ for a teenage boy to love poetry in the rough and tumble world of Colorado Springs circa 1955-56. I shall never forget her.”

The similarities between Wickersham’s boyhood in Colorado Springs and the childhood adventures of the Gray children don’t end with their attendance at St. Mary’s. When Wickersham first started thinking about writing a book, he planned it as a memoir, but settled on something between a memoir and a novel.

“I like to describe ‘Morning Is Always Nigh’ as thinly disguised autobiography,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, I decided to fictionalize my boyhood. The central incidents in each of the 14 stories actually happened, but I have compressed them somewhat into an 18-month cycle for the sake of the narrative.”

For example, Wickersham said, the hail storm described in Chapter 14 happened in 1966, but it did happen coming out of the Rule Creek Valley just as described. Some of the stories are literal transcriptions of incidents; others are assembled around a central “true” event. Nonessential details were changed or added to enhance the stories.

The characters too are mixtures of many people in Wickersham’s life. Mary, Dan’s sister, is a combination of many women from his life, including his two sisters and his wife. At times, Wickersham is the John character, while in another instance he is the Danny character. His brothers, Chuck and Tom, move in and out of the John and Danny characters as well. Wickersham said when he visualized the stories while writing them, he pictured the characters as three of his children, John, Mary, and Danny.

While on the surface “Morning Is Always Nigh” may seem like an adventure book, readers will find deeper purpose and meaning in the adventure stories. Wickersham said he purposefully wove in some big ideas that readers can follow and enjoy throughout the book. The book celebrates the beauty and sacredness of the natural world and discusses several philosophical/theological questions.

“Celebrating the beauty and sacredness of the natural world is major personal value that I inherited from my parents and which I have communicated to my children,” Wickersham said.

For years, poetry has been Wickersham’s principal creative writing interest. In fact, he long thought that an illustrated edition of his poems, with his son Jamie as the illustrator, would be his first published work. However, as his students continually requested that he write down the stories he told in class, he began thinking about a novel that he could do as a collaboration with Jamie.

“Jamie is a gifted artist, but the direction of his life has taken him away from the drawing board,” Wickersham said. “Jamie’s drawings are a major feature of the book. The two of us collaborating on the project was a wonderful experience. Of course, Jamie has heard all these stories from his early childhood, and he has visited the scenes of most of them, so he has an intimacy with the narrative that another illustrator would not enjoy.”

“Morning is Always Nigh” is available at

(Amy G. Partain is communications associate for St. Mary’s High School.)

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