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Helping people one book at a time

Growing up in an orphanage, Joe Flaherty turned to books for comfort and companionship.
To this day, they have never let him down.
Flaherty, 59, is executive/artistic director of Writers & Books Inc., an organization that he founded in 1981. Its stated mission is to promote “reading and writing as lifelong activities for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
With a staff of seven, an annual budget of roughly $550,000 and operating out of a former police precinct building in the Neighborhood of the Arts, Flaherty is passionate about the role of literacy in one’s life.
“I truly believe that reading and writing are critical for people throughout every stage of their lives,” he says. “Engagement with literature shouldn’t just end when a person graduates from college. It can be a lifelong passion.”
To this end, Flaherty and his staff offer multiple learning opportunities for local folks.
Writers & Books offers dozens of classes year-round for youth and adults. The titles range from “You’ve Gotta Be Joking! Adding Humor to Your Writing” and “Delving into Poetry” to “My Thoughts Exactly: Column Writing for Beginners” and “Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss.”
The University Avenue-based organization also operates the Gell Center of the Finger Lakes, a rural retreat and conference center located in the Bristol Hills, which offers writers and readers a chance to escape the everyday and delve into the printed word.
Writers & Books is wrapping up its sixth annual successful rendition of “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book …,” which this year featured numerous public readings and learning sessions related to the memoir, “Name All the Animals” by Rochester native Alison Smith. Numbers are being tallied, but final attendance figures for the three-month event is expected to top 15,000.
“Writers & Books has become so much more than I ever could have imagined,” Flaherty says. “Through the talents of many, we just keep growing and growing.”

A Steeltown start

Flaherty’s own story could make for a page-turner. Born in Pittsburgh as the youngest of four children to Festus Flaherty-a steelworker-and Ethel Flaherty-a homemaker-the lad experienced turmoil even before his first memories.
When Joe was less than 1 year old, his father died of a heart attack. A few years later, his oldest sister died of leukemia. Despondent and unable to cope with these losses, his mother sent Joe’s remaining sister to live at a boarding school, while Joe and his older brother headed to Girard College Orphanage in Philadelphia.
It was Joe’s home from the time he entered first grade until he finished high school.
The experience of growing up in an institution with 1,000 other boys was mixed, he says.
“Living in an orphanage was sort of like experiencing a 19th century existence-very much an institution with occasional bouts of corporal punishment,” he recalls. “But parts of it were fun. We’d have snowball fights with 200 kids on each side. And there were always plenty of playmates around. Still, every kid wants to think that their mom really loves them.
“I was always very envious of people with family lives and I always wondered what it’d be like to have a family.”
Although he did get to visit his mother at Christmas time and for brief periods during the summers, Flaherty found true family among his peers-and among his “friends” who lived in the pages of books.
“We were lucky; the orphanage had a terrific library,” he says.
The lad routinely devoured text after text. Favorites included the Hardy Boys series and books by novelist Jack London.
“I was constantly reading, to the point where my school subjects started to suffer because I always had my nose in a book,” he says. “One day, when I was in eighth grade, I came across “Catcher in the Rye.” Being a big sports lover, I figured the book was about baseball, so I started to read it. My English teacher saw me with it, threw his hands in the air and said, ‘You’re much too young to read that!'”
Intrigued, Flaherty gobbled it down hastily and says that books like that one “were lifesavers.”
When he finished high school at the orphanage, Flaherty worked various jobs for a few years, including entry-level stints with a shipping company, an insurance firm and an automobile parts warehouse.
“Then I thought that maybe college wouldn’t be so bad,” he says.
Flaherty enrolled at Pennsylvania State University-not surprisingly as an English major-and earned a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1969. One of his favorite courses was a photography class he took during his senior year.
Following graduation, Flaherty headed to Boston, along with several of his Penn State chums.
His first post-college job?
“I became a taxi driver in Cambridge. Yes, me, the guy who had no idea where anything in Boston was located,” he says. “Fares would climb into my cab and I’d have to ask them how to get to their destination. As a result, I earned really good tips.”
The job proved fruitful in other ways as well. Since he worked the afternoon and evening shift, Flaherty spent his days hanging out in Grolier Poetry Book Shop, which was chock full of poetry and frequented regularly by real poets.
“The owner, Gordon McKeirney, was a wonderful old guy who introduced me to all the poets,” he says. “I’d never really paid attention to poetry before but immersed myself in it for the year that I spent in Boston.”
But then it was time to move on. Flaherty moved back to Pittsburgh for a short time, working as a substitute teacher. Then he heard about a new place in Rochester: the Visual Studies Workshop.
The plan was for the organization to offer graduate degrees in photography-with free tuition for those who helped build it. Flaherty found himself on the next train to Rochester.
He earned a master of fine arts degree in photography in 1974, then headed to Millerton, in the Hudson Valley, to work for Aperture Books, a company that published art, photography and poetry texts.
But the distribution system was limited and Flaherty had an idea for reaching a wider audience.
“I suggested that we load our books into a bus and drive around trying to sell them,” he says.
Thus was born “The Book Bus,” driven by Flaherty and a colleague. For the next four years, the pair traveled to college campuses, music festivals and writers’ conferences up and down the East Coast, selling hard-to-find books out of their makeshift mobile home.
As he traveled, Flaherty noticed other similar artistic ventures in cities and small communities. These endeavors motivated him to launch one of his own-a community-based literacy agency-and he chose his former Rochester stomping grounds as the concept’s birthplace.
Writers & Books was born in a tiny storefront on South Clinton Avenue. The group moved into its present quarters in 1985.
“With funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, we started bringing in guest authors, such as W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg,” he recalls. “And we received lots of invitations for reading and writing classes for special audiences, such as unwed mothers, folks recovering from drug/alcohol addiction and area hospitalized children who were hurting for mental stimulation.
“We realized that a lot of people could benefit from having writing in their lives, and as a result, the concept just took off.”
Over the next few years, the number of classes, instructors and participants quickly increased. In 2000, Writers & Books purchased the building at 740 University Ave. from the city of Rochester and made physical changes to the structure to make it accessible for all users.
Today, the building contains 8,500 square feet of usable space-including classrooms and larger gathering rooms for public readings-and the organization annually serves 25,000 individuals.
Funding still comes from the National Endowment on the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, but the biggest chunk comes from private foundations, corporate donations, individual memberships and program tuition fees.

Dream job

Flaherty is married to Elizabeth Scott-who teaches English as a Second Language for the Rochester City School District-and is the father of two daughters-Alexa, 29, an actress in Manhattan; and Caedra, 22, a 2005 Brown University graduate who is working for a textbook company in Durham, N.C.
Flaherty, who counts Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, J.D. Salinger and Anne Tyler among his favorite authors, is thrilled with the current popularity of book clubs.
“It’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t belong to one!” the Rockingham Street resident says.
He is an avid golfer, a Geva Theatre Center season ticket subscriber and a Rochester Red Wings and Rochester Rhinos fan.
Two Writers & Books board members praise Flaherty’s talents and contributions to the community.
“I always describe Joe Flaherty as an impresario because he built this organization out of nothing,” says James Moore, board president for Writers & Books and a management consultant.
“Joe has put together a ‘show’ here for the past 25 years, and people keep coming back because there’s always something new to see,” Moore says. “I think of Joe as an Irish police chief in an old precinct building who could probably fix the boiler in the basement if it needed fixing. He’s as comfortable addressing an audience of 200 as he is taking out the trash. He is a consummate entrepreneur and professional.”
Writers & Books vice president Ken McCurdy agrees.
“Joe has tremendous rapport with our clients-whether they are kids or adults-and with his staff members,” the CEO of Lazer Inc says. “He’s also equally comfortable with prospective donors or legislative leaders. Joe is a tremendous person who gets things done.”
It’s a labor of love, Flaherty says, and he cannot imagine doing anything else.
“There’s no greater kick than hearing from a past class participant that a publisher has agreed to publish their book, or that they’ve decided to write their life’s memoirs after taking one of our classes,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be sure that others had the chance to be as influenced by the magic of books as I did.”
(Debbie Waltzer is a Rochester-area freelance writer.)

04/14/06 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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