If it weren’t for celibacy, I think being a medieval monk would be the best job in the world. As a devout introvert, I often find myself dreaming of an isolated life of reading and writing. For contemplatives, Gothic monasticism offered lasting respite from the dirty business of social interaction. Some monks set aside huge blocks of time for meditative prayer, scholarly production, and, on occasion, even the fermentation of beer. Orders first appeared in North Africa and Western Europe in the Middle Ages. They varied in practice, but some devoted themselves to the preservation and duplication of ancient texts. Much of early Western civilization passed through the pens of monks as they worked for centuries in damp scriptoria.
More past Muncie: 1932 4th of July celebration included speeches, baseball and epic fireworks
These orders mainly worked with religious texts in the early Middle Ages, but during the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries, scribes copied and preserved thousands of documents from Western literature, including many non-religious works from the Antiquity. Such efforts helped Europeans emerge from the dark ages that had evolved after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Today, secular scholasticism fulfills much the same role as medieval monasticism. Yet the work remains fundamentally the same: long hours poring over old material, copying and interpreting the source material, and repackaging it for modern readers. For local historians, these “old records” come in many forms, but the best are found in archived newspapers.
For 185 years, Muncie’s newspapers have provided an account of daily life in our community, covering the stories that define us and setting the introductory draft of local recorded history. Muncie’s first newspaper was published as the Muncietonian by David Gharkey in 1837. Over the following decades, Munsonians started dozens of newspapers, including Morning Star in 1899 and Evening Press in 1905. These two have merged in 1996 to become The Star Press.
My news junkie parents subscribed to both newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s. In high school, I had become a fan of the late John Carlson, the prolific author and journalist who spent nearly four decades of his life writing for the Evening Press and later, The Star Press. Carlson’s first article was published on September 20, 1975, under the title “Well-Traveled Goldens Help All Ages.” The story was about Ruth and Roger Oren, two teachers from Muncie who shared stories and photos of their international travels as part of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program. Carlson concluded that “the Orens are examples of vital, vigorous people who make RSVP a success.”
Over the next 39 years, Carlson wrote thousands of articles for the newspaper. His work covered everything from municipal court reporting to elections, food and movie reviews, hard news, biopics, comedy columns and feature stories. A search of Newspapers.com yielded 4,597 results with the byline “By John Carlson”, an average of 117 articles each year he worked for the newspaper. This accounting does not even include his books, his Muncie Journal essays or his short stories. It would take a medieval monk a lifetime of uninterrupted cloistered study to read and understand all of John’s published works.
After: Remembering Star Press reporter John Carlson by re-reading his words
But it’s not the breadth of his work that makes Carlson famous, it’s his humor. Levity was a hallmark of his writing from the start, as evidenced by wonderfully titled articles like “A Dangerous Weapon? Only Mouth, Man Says” and “Police on Wild Peacock Chase”, both in 1976. Around the same time, Carlson wrote a series about local pilots and humorously credited himself with the “Evening Press Aviation Writer “.
By the late 1980s he was writing feature films almost exclusively, bringing his cheerfulness to the forefront with such gems as “Snakes: I Don’t Like Them, I Don’t Trust Them, and I Don’t Want to See Them” and , “New library status is the best deal for the cardless masses.” A year later, he wrote the clever, “They were reaching culinary heights, but hitting bottom in the wok.” Along with his hysterical musings, Carlson’s delightful local histories provide snapshots of Muncie’s life and, in retrospect, a biographical history of everyday Munsonians.
I never asked John if he considered himself a storyteller. Most journalists I’ve asked don’t, retorting that they’re writing about the present for readers here and now. But the more I write this column, the more I understand how indispensable journalists are for local history. An American town without a newspaper is simply a town without a story. Whether they realize it or not, reporters write as much for posterity as for contemporary readers.
John Carlson was no exception. For example, in the fall of 1979, he covered the Muncie mayoral race between Alan Wilson and James Carey. Carlson and his colleagues’ reports of the candidates and the final election result provide in the historical record a clear account of the crucial 1979 election. Wilson crushed Carey by 20%, some 4,666 votes. The race then became nationally known in an episode of the 1982 PBS documentary series “Middletown”.
Carlson published his last story for The Star Press on December 5, 2014. Like his first story for the newspaper, the story was about a magnanimous couple; this time Bob and Stacy Ball, the founders of Blood N’ Fire Ministry. The Balls were the winners of Star Press’ “Person of the Year” contest and Carlson wrote the editorial. He found that the couple “had left their mark in this whole community, and it’s decidedly better for that”. A true statement about Stacy and Bob for sure, but also one that sums up John Carlson’s own career in the Magic City.
Take my opinion for what it’s worth, but I’m convinced we’re already on a long slide into another dark age. So far, we have shown great incompetence in meeting all the challenges of the 21st century. Americans do not agree on a common good, which is not a new phenomenon, but our radical polarization undermines the spirit of cooperation that we desperately need right now. Unenlightened vanguards distorted and politicized everything, agitating an already resentful and fragmented people. Shallow careerists degrade our institutions while national politics turns into hyperpartisan incompetence. Mindless consumerism devalues all aspects of life as we destroy the atmosphere with reckless abandon. I have no idea what Americans still value, other than status, violence, navel-gazing, and Marvel movies. It’s a recipe for decline and I think we’re doomed.
But I console myself in the hope that in a distant time, a new monastic tradition may discover, copy and interpret the great works of our time. Perhaps local monks, working in a dilapidated future monastery along the banks of the White River, may even discover the works of John Carlson, the great Munsonian writer of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They will surely see what we have seen in him, a master storyteller with a caring soul and a penchant for humor. Who knows, maybe his work will even inspire a Carlsonian renaissance in a better world to come.
Rest in peace my friend, we miss you and love you forever.
Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.