Rev. Donald R. Fletcher was 80 and recovering from cancer surgery when he made the prayerful vow that launched his latest career.
“I don’t believe in making bargains with God,” the longtime preacher and teacher explained. “What I said was, 'If I could have another 15 years, I’m going to write.’”
That was 21 years ago. Fletcher, now 101, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, spent his childhood in Korea and recently published his ninth book: My First Hundred Years — A Life on Three Continents. I interviewed him twice about his writing in the early 2010s; as was true of his earlier work, I found his new memoir to be animated by a sensibility that is generous, grateful, and kind, and rendered in a lyrical and conversational style that attests to his enduring love of the written word.
Remembering his mother singing a hymn one early evening at their missionary post in Taegu Station, Korea, Fletcher writes: Even to a child, the situation, the sound, the whole late-sunlit scene were powerfully, transcendentally poignant. There was an awareness of Spirit, of Reality quite beyond … intersecting my simple, day-to-day reality.
“I’ve moved from one thing to another,” says the author, whose memoir recounts a life rich with faith, family, and friendships — including with his neighbors at Lions Gate, the predominantly Jewish retirement community in Voorhees where the author has lived since 2007. And where he recently took up painting with oils.
“I had done a little bit with watercolor," Fletcher says. "We have a nice art studio here, and I had never tried oils.”
He and his wife, Martha, an educator and church musician who died in 2014, moved to Lions Gate from central New Jersey "mainly to be closer to our daughter, Marilyn,” Fletcher told me, sitting at a table in the handsome Lions Gate library. I’d interviewed him before about earlier books titled Turnings and Martha and I. He’s as adept and erudite a conversationalist as ever, despite having lost some vision in one eye, as well as some of his hearing, in recent years.
His daughter, Marilyn Keith, a retired Voorhees elementary teacher, is at the table with us and has brought along some of her dad’s books. “I love to hear his stories,” she said.
“When we were going to move to Lions Gate, someone said, ‘You won’t like the kosher cooking,’" said Fletcher. "But we had enjoyed quite a few kinds of cuisines in our lifetime, so why not?
“Lions Gate has been a very good fit,” Fletcher said, noting that he and his wife were embraced by the community there, and vice versa. "It’s a fine place.”
A Ventnor, native, Fletcher earned a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University, where he also did his undergraduate work; graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary; and through friends met the Westminster Choir College student who would become his wife.
Recalling the evening when they confirmed their feelings to each other, Fletcher writes: There needed to be music. But first — words. What followed were the Bible (Book of Genesis, chapter 24) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 5, the final movement): … I went out into a mild, cool October evening, got on my bicycle, and rode across town to Moore Street, to Martha.
The Fletchers were married in 1942 and spent much of their early life together serving as missionaries in Chile, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Texas, among other places. They lived for many years in Cherry Hill, where he taught at Cherry Hill West and she at East. They had six children and 10 grandchildren. Fletcher is now a great-grandfather.
“We were married for 72 and a half years,” said Fletcher, who cared for his wife in their apartment until the end of what he called “the long eclipse” that is Alzheimer’s: Her breathing simply and gently stopped … Life simply ceased.
In the five years since Martha’s death, Fletcher has continued to write and, occasionally, preach.
“I have never written out a sermon,” he noted. “I think it through, I prepare my thoughts, but I go into the pulpit with nothing, and just preach.”
His preaching is memorable, said the Rev. Greg Faulkner, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Cherry Hill.
“I started hearing Don preach when he was in his late 80s,” said Faulkner. “He preached these really beautiful, eloquent sermons with a care and a gentleness and a kind of low-burning passion … with no notes."
Recently, Fletcher has been experimenting with “flash” fiction: very short stories, published online.
“I’ve always written longhand on a pad of lined paper,” he said. “This is new for me, this flash fiction. I’ve placed my first story with the online Blue Lake Review, which is considered one of the best."
Who knows? Fletcher added. “Maybe my next book will be a collection of short stories.”