By RAY ELLIOTT
Author and playwright Jon Shirota, the last member of the Handy Writers Colony in Marshall, Illinois, has given the Marshall High School Foundation $5,000 to fund the Lowney Turner Handy Creative Writing Scholarship for the next 10 years to give $500 annually to the best writer at the high school.
“If I live to be 100,” Shirota, now almost 90, said while laughing, “I’ll give another $5,000 to continue it for another 10 years.”
The Japanese-American who was born and raised on Maui and lives in Southern California is the author of “Lucky Come Hawaii,” written at the colony in the early 1960s, “Pineapple White,” “Chronicles of Ojii-Chan” and several other stories and the following plays: “Lucky Come Hawaii” (adapted from the novel), “Leilani’s Hibiscus” and “Voices From Okinawa.” All three plays were published in “Voices from Okinawa” and have been performed in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Okinawa and Japan.
When “Lucky Come Hawaii” was adapted into a play, it was awarded a production grant from the John F. Kennedy Center for New Plays and led to other plays and other playwriting awards for Shirota. He has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the American College Theater Festival, the Los Angeles Actors Theater Festival of One Acts, the Los Angeles County Cultural Affairs Department and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts.
Shirota wanted to fund the scholarship to honor Lowney Handy for nurturing him and helping him become a writer, without whom he doubts he’d ever have come to be a writer. He was working as an Internal Revenue Service representative in Los Angeles when Handy invited him to the colony in 1963. He resigned immediately, loaded up and drove the 2,000 miles to Marshall.
“She showed me the way,” Shirota said. “And I have the signed picture of her that she gave me on the wall of my office that I look up to each day as I sit down to write. She inspires me. My contribution to the writing scholarship is my way of honoring what she did for me.”
On the occasional trips back from his California home for James Jones Literary Society symposia, Shirota visits Handy’s grave in Marshall and leaves a bouquet of flowers after standing quietly before her grave in quiet contemplation.
After hearing of Shirota’s contribution, another former colony member who has contributed to the fund for the annual $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award, Robinson native Don Sackrider, said, “It seems the Handy Colony lives on. How nice.”
While the Lowney Handy Writing Award has existed for many years — and a certificate is presented to the winning student each year by Dr. Jim Turner, Lowney’s nephew — it has never had a cash award to go with it.
“This is certainly a great tribute to Lowney and to Marshall,” said Alyson Thompson, director of the Marshall Public Library who has been instrumental in helping Shirota set up the financial contribution and is working with him and the Marshall High School Foundation to get the award in place for the next academic year. “It is not only an attribute to her, but to the community as well. And for that we are all thankful.”
The $500 annual scholarship will be given to a student who completes an application, holds a GPA of 2.5 or higher—Shirota likes the lower GPA because he never graduated from high school and joined the American Army as soon as he could and was stationed at Schofield Barracks where Jones was stationed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — and be a graduating Marshall High School senior.
Included with the application is a creative writing essay as outlined by MHS senior English teacher Amy Gard or her successor. Marshall High School students also compete for an essay-writing award, initiated by the James Jones Literary Society, based on Jones’ short story, “The Valentine.”
Another former colony member, Edwin “Sonny” Cole, a Marshall native who wrote two novels, “Some Must Watch” and “A Legacy of Love,” before turning to teaching at Menlo Park, Calif., becoming head of the lower school and then becoming headmaster where he stayed until retirement, also remembered Marshall by leaving $100,000 to the Marshal Public Library after he died in 2015.
The library has all the books written by members of The Handy Writers Colony. Besides Shirota, Jones, Sackrider and Daly, other writers from the colony who published books include John Bowers, Tom Chamales, Jere Peacock and Charles Wright.
Contributions will be accepted for the Lowney Turner Handy Creative Scholarship by the Marshall High School Foundation at 806 N. Sixth St., Marshall, IL 62441, to help fund the scholarship for years to come to honor Handy, who mentored many writers at the colony and was the guiding force in “From Here To Eternity” author James Jones’ initial success.
Ray Elliott is Past President and board member of the James Jones Literary Society.