SHILLINGTON, Pa. - Other than a dogwood tree, planted on his first birthday by his Pennsylvania Dutch grandfather, there is not much evidence that John Updike once lived in Shillington, a former farm town just outside Reading.
The local library carries his books, but few people check them out. And many of the younger generation aren't even sure who he is.
But yesterday, news of Updike's death stunned the older folks who remember the young "Uppy," a talented writer and cartoonist at the former Shillington High School who went on to make his life - and his hometown - a main subject of his work.
"It hit me pretty hard," said Barry Nelson, 76, who went to Shillington High School - now Governor Mifflin High School - with Updike and remained friends through the years. "Although I hadn't seen him for a few years, we were good buddies."
Updike spent his first 13 years on the edge of Shillington in a white farmhouse at 117 Philadelphia Ave., where the dogwood tree that his grandfather planted still blooms every spring. Today, the property is owned by the Niemczyk Hoffman Group, an advertising agency, but Updike often stopped by his old homestead.
"He was very gentle, almost shy," said Ted Niemczyk, one of the owners, who met Updike for the first time in 1999 when the writer accompanied a German film crew making a documentary about his life.
During a tour through the renovated house, Updike recalled that the last thing he did before he moved was hide under the dining-room table and draw. When they walked up the stairs to the still-unfinished attic, he remarked that it still had the same musty smell.
Updike was a tall, shy boy as a teenager who found his greatest pleasure in writing and drawing. He was an accomplished cartoonist and hoped to work for Walt Disney. He also wrote regularly for his high school newspaper and won a scholarship to study English at Harvard.
In his fiction and magazine articles, he wrote about his house and other landmarks in his hometown. In 1984, he immortalized the town in a New Yorker article, "A Soft Spring Night in Shillington."
Updike wrote about how, during a visit to his mother in 1980, he "spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington . . . searching for the meaning of my existence as I had once scanned those same sidewalks for pennies."
"For thirteen years," he wrote, "I lived in the same house on Philadelphia Avenue, and after moving eleven miles away, in my family's quixotic recapture of my mother's birthplace, still returned to the town for school and social life. Shillington, I can now see with a sociological eye, is a typical town of the region, a farm region where land was precious and the brick houses, often semidetached, were closely packed."
He found the town changed in 1980. "The lights above Lancaster Avenue had since my childhood become harder, higher, and yellower in tint. The towering horse-chestnut trees shading this corner as I remembered it had been cut down. I crossed Liberty, a block up from the Lutheran church whose Sunday school I had been heading toward the storied day I was hit by the car.. . .
"Though for seven years I had walked this route to elementary school, there were houses in this block I knew nothing about - a row of three, identical, of white-painted brick, for instance."
The farms and Stephens' Luncheonette, where Updike "had smoked and posed and daydreamed for hours after school," were gone, but the houses were still there, as was the crumbling sandstone wall that surrounded the Berks County Poorhouse and was featured in Updike's
The Poorhouse Fair
'A great guy'
"We used to walk on that wall," recalled Jerry Potts, 78, who lived a block away and played with Updike in his big backyard.
"What annoyed his mother was, I was athletic and he wasn't, and she didn't want me influencing him," recalled Potts, retired now and living just a few blocks away. "He was a great guy, a great guy."
Like many of his other friends, Potts followed Updike's career and corresponded with the author. And those who graduated with him in 1950 saw him at reunions, which Updike, president of his class, never failed to attend.
The last was in 2005. "He didn't forget about us," Nelson said.
Two years ago, Updike stopped by his house, but Nelson was in the hospital. Updike wasn't able to visit Nelson but stayed and chatted with Nelson's wife.
Among the old gang, there is much speculation as to the model for Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the ex-athlete of Updike's quartet of
novels. One person pointed to Potts as the model, but he named someone else.
"There was a guy in school whose nickname was Rabbit, but I don't think it was him," Nelson mused.
As for Updike's favorite subject matter - he won a lifetime-achievement award at the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award - his friends were willing to overlook the raunch.
"I've changed in my attitudes somewhat," said Nelson, a retired middle-school teacher and principal. "I used to find it objectionable, although I always thought he was a great writer. But now I don't think it's that bad."
The John Updike he knew was "a gentleman."
"He was a real nice man, a great friend and a very understanding individual," Nelson said.