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Restoring Updike's Place in Berks County

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Albright instructor Maria Mogford, Ph.D., stands on the porch of John Updike's childhood home on Philadelphia Avenue in Shillington.

Albright College instructor and John Updike expert, Maria Mogford, Ph.D., is serving as curator of the author's childhood home, which is being renovated and converted into a museum.

by Hilary Bentman

Maria Mogford, Ph.D., had to travel 3,000 miles from home to discover a literary legend in her own backyard.

Despite growing up and being educated in Berks County schools, Mogford had never heard of native son John Updike, much less read any of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s works.

It wasn’t until Mogford, an Albright College instructor of English and education, was working on her master’s degree in England that she first read Updike. Glancing at the biography included, Mogford was shocked to discover the Berks connection.

“Initially I was attracted by the Reading connection. I could locate the places he writes about,” said Mogford. “But I love his writing. It’s so descriptive.”

Thus began a lifelong fascination with Updike that included corresponding with the author for the last five years of his life.

Mogford, now an Updike expert who is also teaching an Updike class for Albright’s Accelerated Degree Program, is serving as curator of the John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, which is currently being converted into a museum.

It’s a work in progress. The 250-member nonprofit John Updike Society, partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Berks County, is gutting the circa-1880, two-story home and reverting it – as best as possible – to a 1930s/40s-style dwelling, representing the time Updike lived there.

The society hopes to display Updike works and share items with nearby Alvernia University, which houses the Updike archives.

The goal is to create a space for people to discover and rediscover Updike, a retreat to sit, read and write in the place where Updike said his “artistic eggs were hatched.” The society is also planning an educational component as well as outreach to area schools to introduce a new generation to Updike.

“He said if he ever had a ghost it would haunt this house,” said Mogford.

The renovation of the Philadelphia Avenue home is expected to cost about $300,000. Organizers home to have it complete by October 2014.

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The dogwood tree planted outside the Updike home on the occasion of John's first birthday. Updike later wrote fondly of the tree.

Born in 1932, Updike was a prolific writer and art/literary critic. He is perhaps best known for his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom books, including Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux. He won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Rabbit is Rich in 1981 and again for Rabbit at Rest in 1990.

“Updike is too good a writer to be missed the way he is,” said Mogford.

The only child of Linda and Wesley Updike (Wesley attended Albright for his teaching certificate and taught math at the former Shillington High School), Updike lived in the house until he was 13. That’s when the family moved to a farm in nearby Plowville.

But the Shillington house, and the Reading area in general, served as inspiration for his fictional works. He even wrote fondly of the dogwood tree planted outside the house on his first birthday. It still stands today.

Updike’s works often deal with religion, sexuality and ordinary, middle class Americans. The material has been criticized as misogynistic and may explain why it hasn’t pervaded the public school curriculum.

Updike died in 2009. A few months later, the Updike Society was formed for the purpose of “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike, promoting literature written by Updike, and fostering and encouraging critical responses to Updike’s literary works.”

The society now owns the Updike childhood home, thanks to a donation from the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation. The home had been used over the years as a private residence and business. A one-story addition was added after the Updikes left in 1945.

The society is now working to transform the home into a museum. Habitat for Humanity is providing volunteer work, saving the society about $35,000, said Habitat’s executive director Timothy Daley. This is an unusual project for an organization best known for helping lower-income families build and own their own homes.

But Daley said the organization works to provide resources for the community and that can include educational and cultural initiatives such as an Updike home museum.

“It’s about being engaged and responsive,” he said.

Habitat volunteers removed the home’s storm windows and workers replicated new ones using wood from the old bleachers at Albright’s Bollman Center.

The Updike Society has received private donations and is soliciting more help for the renovation, including furniture, books and other objects contemporary to when Updike lived there.

Mogford describes Updike as a humble man. If he knew his childhood home was being turned into a museum, she said, he would “probably not understand what all the fuss was about.”

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