Letters at 20 Years

Some 'Postmarks' Writers Just Don't Know When to Quit … God Bless 'Em

Alice Kennedy Spooner
Alice Kennedy Spooner (Illustration By Penny Van Horn)

Alice Kennedy Spooner

"That's been a long time ago," Alice Kennedy Spooner says of her few years in the early 1950s as an obstetrics nurse at Austin's public Brackenridge hospital. "I never did see lung cancer, and I don't know that it exists. And I never did see nobody have a cancer of the big toe neither, you know what I mean? ... I don't know that it exists."

When Alice Kennedy Spooner speaks, people listen. Sometimes they scratch their heads, but they listen. And if you listen patiently enough, not only does she make perfect sense, she has all the answers. The South Austin senior has been writing to the Chronicle for years, informing and entertaining with her often perplexing texts. But for some ... for those of us absolutely smitten by her circumnavigatory scribblings, she is an intellectual icon.

When I called to ask if I could visit, she seemed a bit confused. Not in the way that an older person sometimes gets, but in the way a humble, almost reticent writer might act when they learn that they have a legion of loyal fans. I explained that the Chronicle was celebrating a 20th birthday and could almost hear her face light up over the phone.

From her small, dark apartment, Mrs. Spooner writes. There's the novel about the asteroid that came to Earth that she hasn't quite gotten around to. There's poetry. There are pages and pages of neat rows of handwriting in piles and piles on her desk. And there are letters. All of this is surrounded by books. Scads of battered spines hinting at an age and frequency of use -- medical journals, science fiction -- her favorites. She nestles in a worn old comfy couch and clears a spot on a sturdy coffee table so I can sit across from her.

Back when she was a girl growing up in Central Texas, her parents insisted that she and her sister enroll in nursing school. "I was not a perfect nurse," she says with an uncomfortable chuckle. "So what did you really want to be?" I asked, expecting to hear "writer." "I would have been perfectly happy being a librarian. ..." she recalls wistfully of her years as a page at a UT library. "I actually wanted to work as an architect," she says with a wily grin, "But they thought it was not feminine."

Our conversation turns to the current controversies at Brackenridge. "I believe in the separation of church and state," she asserts, likening a church running a public health institution to the U.S. Congress regulating what hymns may be sung at Mass. An infectious good nature colors her tales, even when we talk about the witness protection program, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, medical malpractice insurance, and the Marlboro Man. "He had lung cancer," she says of the big tobacco icon. "He's still alive?" I asked. "They had him on public radio and you could ask him." she replies. "He's taken in some baby elephant."

On my way out, I notice her iMac. "I don't know how to use that thing. I'm afraid of that whole Web site system; I think it's subject to incredible corruption." She relates the standardization of information to the health problems that children from different cultures face when fed food from areas of the world outside of their own. At first I squint, and then, as usual, her brilliance soaks in. Her metaphors are astute and elegant -- just like the curious combination of the poster of Koko the gorilla next to a prayer card of Pope John Paul that reside over her computer -- a reminder that faith and theories of evolution can coexist.

This, folks, is Alice Kennedy Spooner's reality. And when you stop to think about it, in some ways, it's more real than anything that is.

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