LISTEN: Thomas Fox Averill Learned To 'Just Do The Work' In His First Job At A Cemetery

Jun 17, 2016

Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka, Kansas, was established in 1906.
Credit flickr user Peter Musolino

Many teenagers seek out jobs, often for the first time, in the summer. Writer and novelist Thomas Fox Averill was 16 when he started his first job at Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka, Kansas.

Averill, a writer-in-residence and professor of English at Washburn University, spent three summers as part of the grounds crew at Mount Hope. He told New Letters on the Air host Angela Elam that the experience shaped his life and his approach to writing.

In his essay, Thirteen weeks at Mount Hope, writing lessons from the cemetery, Averill writes that he learned "the value of doing the work for the sake of the work, not for praise, not even for results. Just do the work."

Here's an excerpt of Averill's essay published in New Letters magazine in Fall 2014: 

1. The Hedge

"My first job was at Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka, Kansas. I was 16 years old and had never had more than the odd jobs of mowing yards or babysitting. The summer of 1965, I was one of what the permanent grounds crew called 'the boys,' hired on after school ended. All spring, the regular crew had watched a half-mile hedge grow along 17th Street, and as 'boys' our first job was to trim that overgrown hedge. 'It's been waiting for you,' the crew told us. Armed with heavy hedge clippers, non-electric, non-powered, we spent four solid days trimming that half mile: lift the clippers, squeeze them together, cut and chop until our arms were heavy, our shirts soaked with sweat, our hands blistered and swollen, our shoulders so tired and sore we could barely lift our forks at dinner. The hedge, long and tedious, woody, thorny and stubborn, was a test the full-timers gave us."

Angela Elam is the producer and host of New Letters on the Air. You can reach her at elama@umkc.edu or follow the show on Twitter at @NewLettersRadio.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.