Russell Frank is a professor of journalism at Penn State, a contributor to StateCollege.com and a former columnist for the “Centre Daily Times.” He has compiled a selection of his columns from the past 20 years into a book, “Among the Woo People,” which comes out on Sunday. WPSU’s Adison Godfrey talked with Russell Frank about his book.
AG: Thanks for joining me.
RF: My pleasure.
AG: Your newest book, “Among the Woo People,” explores what it’s like to live amidst the fraternities in downtown State College. Where does the term “woo people” come from?
RF: I wish I could say I invented the term, but it was actually one of my neighbors. We would hear people running down the street going, “Woooo!” And so one of my neighbors started referring to them as the woo people and I started writing columns about them. And they were kind of like mock anthropological studies written in the language--I took a lot of anthropology courses when I was in grad school--and so they were written in the style of an ethnography, as if you had parachuted in among these unknown people that we know very little about and we’re there to describe their life ways. It was kind of a fun thing to do so I wound up writing several columns about them and when it came time to come up with a title for this book, I said, “Yeah, this is what I want to call it.”
AG: You mentioned in your book that you had written over 1,000 columns, but you had to narrow that down to 90. How did you decide which columns to include in your book?
RF: It was a lot of work, and it was a funny process because I assumed they were all electronically archived and inexplicably lots of them were missing. I had saved a lot of them in a cardboard box so I was going through a box of yellow newspaper clippings. My parents--bless their hearts, may they rest in peace--they saved columns and then gave them to me in a three-ring binder. And so drawing on these three sources I read them all. It was really fun. There was one column which I did not include in this collection that I got tons of hate mail about, and for a while I was really resistant to the criticism. But now I kind of have softened a little bit on that topic and I partially agree with my critics on that one. But boy, in terms of vicious responses, it was amazing. “I hope you get cancer” and those kinds of responses. I’m teaching a column writing class now, so I tell my students, “This is what you’re signing up for if you write columns.” You’ve gotta have a thick skin because some people are just gonna hate you.
AG: So what column was that about?
RF: It was about my cat. So cat lovers are a particular breed, you know, you cannot say anything bad about cats to cat lovers. What I thought was a humorous column about wishing for the demise of this cat that I didn’t like very much… Boy, did I hear about it. It went on and on, there were so many comments. So I debated, should I put those in the book, and I said nah.
AG: As I was reading your book, I shared some anecdotes with colleagues who live in State College. Many of them had similar stories since they, too, live “among the woo people.” You mentioned receiving hate mail, but did you ever receive responses to your columns from community members who could relate?
RF: Oh yeah, lots and lots. And that was always very gratifying. This is a small place and my photo would run with the column, and so I would have encounters in the supermarket and in restaurants. Strangers walking up to me, telling me how much they appreciated what I had written. There was a columnist in San Francisco, Jon Carroll, who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. He talked about in one of his columns, he was at a wedding and a woman came up to him and said, “I’m sure you must hate when people do this to you, but I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your columns.” And he said, “Madam, what would ever give you the idea that I would hate hearing that somebody enjoyed my columns?”
AG: In your book, you write about having your porch furniture stolen, your driveway blocked by a “frat daddy,” and your car commandeered by drunk college students, among other incidents. I’m sure there are some woo people who would say you knew what you were in for when you moved next door to a fraternity, so you have no room to complain.
RF: Well this is true, you know, I’m a former reporter and I went around the neighborhood talking to people before I made an offer on the house. What’s it like to live here, is it noisy, are the college students a pain in the butt to live around… I think people gave me honest answers. They said it’s noisy at times, but they viewed the students as essentially harmless, that it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood and nothing really terrible ever happens, and if you’re willing to put up with some noise, everybody I spoke to really loved living in that neighborhood. They loved being walking distance from campus, walking distance from downtown… I always felt like there was a real solidarity among the neighbors because we felt a little bit besieged by the students among us. You know, I lived there for 16 years and I was not unhappy, and it gave me plenty of material to write about. I live in College Heights now and I never write about the neighborhood; nothing ever happens. It’s all very quiet and pleasant but it doesn’t give you any juicy material. But you know, the things that happened to me were pretty minor things, really. Finding my car moved was a Halloween night thing and the car wasn’t harmed, it was just across the street because I had foolishly left it open. It’s a standard transmission so you just had to put it in neutral, release the brake and give it a shove. But nothing bad ever happened.
AG: What advice would you give future State College residents about surviving in a college town?
RF: You’ve gotta have a sense of humor about it. When I read these columns, I guess my fear is that I sound like I’m complaining, but really I got a kick out of it all. Most of it was more like mock complaining--I mostly found it funny. And I think that’s the attitude you have to go in with. If you really value above all things in your home peace and quiet, then that is not the place for you. And there are options, you can live on the outskirts of town and there are plenty of quiet places here. But what I like about it is that it didn’t feel like just some boring suburb to me. I felt like I was “in town,” living amid the hubbub, such as it is, of a small city. It’s a very different experience, but one that I prefer.
AG: Thank you again for joining me.
RF: My pleasure.
Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe in State College will host a book launch party at 6 p.m. on October 28. Frank will give a reading of “Among the Woo People” on November 15 at 4 p.m. in Penn State’s Foster Auditorium.