Memoirs by seniors offer lessons worth sharing

Benjamin Nero, the first African American to graduate from Albert Einstein Hospital's residency program in orthodontics, is writing his memoirs - starting on a cotton farm in Mississippi. (MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer)

Before the advanced degrees, money, and accolades, he was just a kid growing up farming cotton with seven siblings, his mother, and his father, who was the son of an ex-slave in Mississippi.

Benjamin Nero grew up just miles away in Mississippi from where teenager Emmett Till was beaten to death. Born in 1937, Nero was a high school football star who played in college and was recruited to play professionally. He remains close with childhood friend Morgan Freeman, the award-winning actor.

Nero was also the first African American to graduate from Albert Einstein Hospital's residency program in orthodontics. He built successful dental practices in greater Philadelphia and New Jersey and endowed a scholarship at his alma mater.

Now he's writing his memoirs - part of a trend from the baby boom and older who want to leave a record of their legacy. Some, like Nero, pay ghostwriters. Others take classes, do their own writing, and self-publish. There's even a National Association of Memoir Writers, based in Berkeley, Calif., which began in 2008 and now has several hundred members and several thousand newsletter subscribers.

For Nero, of Cherry Hill, the spark was lit during the hours bent over at work, fixing crooked young teeth.

Clamping painful braces on his patients, Nero distracted and amused patients with tales of leaving the cotton farm, becoming a football star and a dentist. His parents were both educated and yearned for their children to leave farming and earn degrees - in short, to escape Mississippi.

"I had so many stories that I was telling my patients, I realized I should just write my memoirs," Nero recalls.

The youngest of eight children, Nero started jotting down memories and snippets of conversation with his oldest brother, David Nero Jr., in 2000.

By 2002, David had died, prompting Nero to get serious.

"I'd put it off, and his death pushed me to start. I was inspired to tell the story of my parents, too," he said.

Nero's mother was half-white, the daughter of an African American woman and a white physician. The white doctor's wife had died, and he then fathered a daughter with the maid.

"Obviously, she had no choice in the matter, as this was during the late 1800s," Nero recalls of his grandmother.

Nero's mother was well-educated, attending a boarding school for mulatto children, and finally a historically black college for women, leaving to get married.

Nero's father, David Nero Sr., was the son of a freed slave who, with his brothers, bought up swampland in cotton country, drained and cleared it for farming. Nero's father inherited 50 acres of prime farmland in Fayette County, Miss., in the heart of the cotton industry. He and Nero's mother farmed it successfully for decades.

"My mother left college to marry my father and grow cotton. She stayed there 55 years," he recalls. "Can you imagine? The daughter of a doctor and a city girl!"

NFL reality check

With his pal Freeman, Nero graduated high school. After playing quarterback for the Kentucky State College football team and graduating, Nero was drafted by Sid Gillman, coach of what was then the Los Angeles Chargers, in 1960

At training camp, the lifetime quarterback realized he wouldn't be allowed to play this "brainy" position, due to an unwritten agreement in the NFL that restricted black players. So Nero walked away.

He was the first African American graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, and then completed a three-year residency at Albert Einstein Hospital in Philadelphia. In 1971, he took over a practice at a medical arts building at 16th and Walnut Streets from Knowlton Atterbeary, the only African American orthodontist in the city. "I was the only black guy in my classes," he said.

But buying the practice almost didn't happen, because Nero couldn't get a bank loan. The late Eagles star Clarence Peaks, running back and 1957 draft pick, cosigned a loan for Nero. Within a few years, Nero opened a second practice, in the Germantown-Mount Airy area, and a third in Mount Laurel. Finally, Nero fulfilled a lifelong dream of building his parents a new house.

Nero's memoirs took a nontraditional turn; he was having trouble writing, so he turned to a neighbor, retired Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis, and a coauthor, John Timpane, a current reporter and editor. Lewis, who is blind, strikes up a conversation with Nero and records everything. Then Timpane transcribes the recordings and turns Nero's personal history into a narrative.

A cottage industry

Advice for memoirists? Write down a little something every day. Talk to siblings, cousins, and friends. In Nero's case, "I'm not literary, so I hired someone."

Dixie Tabb Palmer of Harrisburg is writing her own memoir. Hers is a funny, poignant family history. "I'm writing a memoir about coming of age with a father who was my own 'Don Draper' of sorts," she says, referring to the advertising hunk in the series Mad Men. She's taking classes with Temple instructor Anne Hunter to complete her memoir.

"The deadline really writes it for me," says Palmer, who is looking for a publisher. The hardest part? A routine.

Taking classes has helped, as does her work ethic. Classes generally run six to eight weeks and cost $150 to $200. "I feel if I stick to a routine, I can finish," she says.

Boomers can't stop writing their life stories, says memoirist-for-hire Nell McShane Wulfhart. A native of Philadelphia, she lives in Uruguay and works as a freelance journalist and writer of memoirs for others, interviewing them by email and Skype and fashioning their memories into books.

"It's a baby boomer market," says Wulfhart, 35. Her fees range from $130 an hour for memoir consulting to anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 for a longer book with a professional designer and photographs.

Memoir consulting is "helping people who want to do the writing themselves. They need a professional to shape it. Sometimes someone wants something short and doesn't want to do a full book."

The full package "can add a lot to the price. A lot of clients start the project for someone else, for their parents or grandparents or 50th wedding anniversary. And among boomers, the memoirs skew slightly more male."

For memoirists, the results can be priceless.

In reviewing his life, Nero says, he has learned to reflect more on the mistakes he made. "I flunked one course - and that was marriage."

Married three times, he blames his workaholic habits and drive to succeed. Recently, he said, he was able to make amends with his first wife.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund