What do I want to be when I grow up? Or how I found myself!
By Harley King '71
When I graduated from GC with a degree in English, I had some
vague ideas about being a writer but fewer ideas about how to
make my dream a reality. My college years were challenging
largely because of political distractions outside my studies.
My first year, I flunked German because I was more concerned about
fighting racism and protesting the Vietnam War and rarely attended
class. In January 1968, the beginning of my second semester, I
walked through Arlington National Cemetery with the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. and hundreds of others to protest military action
in Vietnam. I turned 19 the day King was shot outside his hotel
room in Memphis and the streets in our cities burned.
I also went Clean for Gene and shaved my beard. My
father worried I was campaigning for the infamous Joe McCarthy
who held the anti-communist hearings in Washington, D.C., but
I laughed, because I only knew the liberal Democrat, Eugene McCarthy
from Minnesota, who had pledged to end the war. I cheered when
Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for a second term, booed when
Bobby Kennedy tossed his hat into the ring and was shocked when
he, too, was killed.
In June 1968, my friend Dean and I boarded a bus in Peoria, Ill.,
to go to the nations capital for the Poor Peoples
March. Not fully understanding what we were doing, we saw ourselves
as part of that Mennonite protest heritage dating back to the
Protestant Reformation. We had been raised to believe that it
was more important to die a martyr for ones faith than to
violate ones principles.
Salvation came in the form of Study-Service Term. If I had stayed
in the U.S., I am sure I would have been pulled deeper into the
radical politics of the time. But instead, I boarded a plane in
Miami and flew to Kingston, Jamaica, with S.A. Yoder and a group
of students not nearly as radical as I had been.
Slowly, U.S. politics became less important. We did not watch
the 6 oclock news or read the newspaper. Instead, we discovered
a culture that had been heavily influenced by Britain even
driving on the wrong side of the road! I fell in love
with Jamaica and suffered culture shock when I returned to the
U.S. a short 13 weeks later.
SST was a pivotal point in my college career. Instead of dropping
out of school to save the world, I focused most of my attention
on my studies, with occasional excursions into politics. I sought
redemption in the creative spirit. I wrote poetry and gave readings,
edited literary journals and Pinchpenny Press, had the role of
Zeus in the Greek play, Trojan Women, and absorbed
the genius of Nick Lindsay. I even found reason to hope for a
better world in the summer of 1969, walking across campus with
my first love while Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for
mankind onto the moon.
I was the first in my parents families to graduate from
college. I had outgrown the farm, but where did I belong? Poets
were not in high demand, and neither was anybody else. In the
midst of a recession, there were few jobs to be found. The war
in Vietnam was still going full throttle. Even though I was in
no immediate danger of being drafted, I began voluntary service
at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. I was no closer to achieving
my dream of being a writer I was an orderly on a psychiatric
Two years later I was married, and my wife encouraged me to go
to graduate school to study theater after I enjoyed directing
the play, Christ in the Concrete City, for Metamora
(Ill.) Mennonite Church. With the carpentry experience gained
by working with my father, I secured a position building stage
sets for summer-theater at Illinois State University and earned
12 hours of credit. By the end of the second semester, I had run
out of money. Even with two part-time jobs working more than 40
hours, I was still unable to pay the bills.
Then, the miraculous happened: a nursing home company offered
me a job writing policy and procedural manuals. Almost four years
after graduating, I started my first job as a writer. True, I
was not writing the Great American Novel or powerful, romantic
poetry, but I was being paid to play with words.
My starting salary was less per hour than what my father had paid
me as a carpenter, but I was writing.
Today, I can say I spent my life as a writer a person who
understands and believes in the power of words. After taking the
position in 1975, I began writing haiku poetry, a Japanese art
popular around the world. During a seven-year period I published
more than 200 haiku in 24 magazines and two books, Winter Silence
and Empty Playground. In 1982 I created a seven-line poetic
form which I still write in today. In 1985 I started writing short
stories, with 100 written to date. My wife and I co-authored a
nonfiction book on pet loss we published Its Okay
to Cry in 1998 and it has outsold my poetry books 10 to one.
I also authored The World of Speaking, a collection of
interviews with professional speakers. Im not famous and
Im not rich, but I spent countless hours working on something
I love. And Ive had to support my writing habit by working
in the corporate world.
I believe that ultimately we do in life what we are meant to do.
We may try to escape our destiny to run away, as Jonah
did, from what God wants us to do. I committed to becoming a minister
when I was a sophomore in high school. By the time I was a senior,
I was searching for answers I ran away from being a preacher.
Yet for the last 13 years I have been a professional speaker,
averaging over 225 presentations a year during the past seven
years. People will come up to me after a speech and tell me that
I have missed my calling that I should have been a preacher.
I think to myself, I am a preacher. My message, very
simply, is, Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you. I reach thousands with that message, striving to plant
seeds of hope in the hearts of others.
Everything in my life has come full circle. I have become what
I dreamed. God gives unto us when we are ready to receive, and
does not give us dreams we cannot achieve. Service to others was
part of the teaching I grew up with and was at the heart of my
SST experience. While I took time accepting my path, desiring
something more glamorous than health care, it has given me everything
I wanted and more: it is a privilege to help others in their time
Sometimes we fight who we are, struggling against ourselves and
our natures. But we must learn to accept who we are and appreciate
who we become. We must love ourselves for what and who we are,
and believe in our talents.
Over 25 years, Harley King has published five books and more than
30 articles and written more than 2,000 poems. He has been speaking
professionally for nearly 15 years, primarily addressing health
care professionals on such topics as leadership and customer service.
He can be reached at HGKing@aol.com.