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JEAN SHEPHERD–Life and Debt

It’s the old crowd! It’s everybody again! It’s everybody I’ve ever known again!…Oh! They’re all here again. All of them. All of them. I mean, why? Look at the confetti!

—-September 4, 1960. Jean Shepherd imagines

looking out of his window in the middle of the

night and seeing a procession passing by.

Was it the parade of his real/fictional life–

was it a dream, were they illusions,

shades out of his past?

Many listeners owe Shep their life

and a debt to him

because of what he gave them.

I am one of those listeners.

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My first debt to Shep

There are many of us. When I was a sophomore in college I began listening to him in the early fall of 1956, just after he began his Sunday evening broadcasts. I sat in our kitchen and listened on my AM and FM, maroon, bakelite radio with the big simulated gold dial.

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I was sort of a loner. I didn’t have many friends. I read a lot. All kinds of serious literature. Shepherd talked to me alone. He made me think and laugh–tickled my mind. He influenced me to subscribe to The Village Voice and The Realist. He was the next step up from Mad, which I’d been reading from the first issue. He got me to read what he suggested and listen to what he liked. He was my mentor.

My mother thought he was literate and witty. My father thought he was subversive. They were equally right.

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young shep

 Here he is  around 1956 and here I am in 1959.Gene June 1959 Pratt grad.
Years later, when he died, hundreds of listeners commented at a “Memorial Message Board” on what they got from him. As I put it in EYF!:

An elegantly composed message says that Shepherd’s broadcasts taught listeners that observation and clear expression could be great rewards, that language was a vital thing when used both precisely and as spontaneously as one dared, and that the most sensible topic was the commonplace–which is full of nuance, humor, and grace. Many people express how wonderful Shepherd was for them, selflessly giving of himself through personal contact and through his program. Among these tributes  are comments of many who found Jean Shepherd  a guide and a comfort throughout their teenage years, such as one fan who remembers how she was struggling to survive adolescence, and through listening to him, Shepherd gave her a sense that she belonged to a sympathetic group who understood him as she did. She comments, “He saved my life.”

He didn’t save my life but he made my life better in many ways–in my way of thinking, my way of observing, my way of comprehending the world, and in other ways that I can’t even begin to grasp, though a friend of mine commented that Shep also must have made me a better speaker and story-teller. For all these probable and possible ways I’m grateful.

Back in 1956 I’d bought and had him sign my copy of I, Libertine. I continued recording and listening to him into the 1960s.i libertine JS signed I began watching his first series of “Jean Shepherd’s America” in 1971, but, because “it wasn’t like his radio programs,” I gave up on it. (Years later I’ve come to recognize the series as an imperfect, incomplete beginning of a potential Great American Television Documentary.)

After that I mostly forgot about him, I’m ashamed to say. Then, in October, 1999 (yes, 28 years later) I read his obituary in The New York Times and immediately realized that I’d lost an old friend.

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My second debt to Shep

In late 1999 I began to listen and research and read a lot more about Shep. I made contacts with people in the world of Shep. I began to write hundreds of notes and stashed them into file folders because I was beginning to help accumulate information for a biography about him. Soon the author of the proposed biography disappeared from view (and, I later found out, had given up on the project) and I began to write–not a biography, but much more important, I believe, a description and appreciation of Shep’s work. Going through an arid period in my professional career, I spent much time working on my Shep-manuscript.  It kept me occupied and excited.

EYF cover

Through that work on Shepherd, in 2005 I became one of my life-long dreams–a published author! I’d gotten to do fascinating research and learn lots of stuff I hadn’t known before. I got to meet and correspond with lots of interesting people. I got reviews, and media people interviewed me. I got royalties.   I got compliments and appreciation for what I’d accomplished. I got cards and letters from people I don’t even know! I felt that I’d contributed to humanity!!!

eb signing

I got to correspond and talk on the phone with Lois Nettleton, a movie star!10.lois lateI got to contribute to the Paley Center’s tribute to Shep and I got to meet Jerry Seinfeld!2012-01-23_138_Paley_Center_Gene_and_Jerry

I got another Shep book published!

sheps army final cover

I even got on TV!

CBS image

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My third debt to Shep

So far I can’t get another Shepherd book published, although I have a couple of completed manuscripts ready to go. I don’t know where I’ll be going from here. What will I do to keep my mind sufficiently occupied? Gee–with all my further ideas about Shepherd and the additional info I’m accumulating about him, why don’t I continue contributing to the Shep-world with a blog?

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It keeps me researching and learning and keeps my aging mind active. I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself if I didn’t have my Shep.

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It’s been

59 years, Shep.

“Excelsior!

and seltzer bottle, too.”

KYKL bottle cover

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