Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the December 5, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
True Tale of the Storyteller
Women and men walk purposefully into the large church
basement, where a brown velvet curtain closes off the stage, and
foliage is visible through the windows. Each long table sports a
centerpiece and is set with autumn-hued place mats, plates, and bowls
The ambiance, friendliness, mounds of decorated donuts and cookies,
and apple cider notwithstanding, there is another attraction at this
special meeting at the Echo Senior Center, on Parkway Avenue in
To this unusual senior center comes an equally atypical guest speaker
this October day: Gwendolyn Jones, storyteller.
She wears a long tan jumper over a black shirt; dangling black
earrings; her hair pulled back and fastened under a straw
with black ribbons down the back — and a broad smile. She
among those present, greeting, reaching out, hugging.
Then Jones begins to speak. And sing. And recite poetry. And tell
stories. Not once does she hesitate, restate, flub, correct. Never
an "um" is uttered. Every syllable is crisply yet comfortably
articulated; every consonant is sounded. And her smile is unwavering.
Jones encourages the group to sing "Little Sir Echo" with
her, conversationally delivers a poem, and narrates three stories
using her voice, her hands, her total body language. After "The
Lady in Gray," "The Shadow," and "The Thing Without
a Name" — this was a Halloween meeting, after all — she
leads the singing of "Come with me," providing a fine finale
Born nearly 72 years ago in England; resident and citizen of the U.S.
for more than half that time; professor emerita, the College of New
Jersey: Gwendolyn Jones is a seasoned performer. She makes a return
appearance on Sunday, December 9, at the Princeton Ethical Humanist
Fellowship meeting in Stewart Hall of the Princeton Theological
Her "Portraits in Literature" comprises two folk tales about
the role of women.
Described by one fellowship member as "about as graceful a woman
as you can imagine," Jones made the same impression during her
visit to Echo. Jane Politi, executive director of the regional center,
says members always enjoy Jones’ visits.
Once there was a little girl named Gwendolyn. She was the youngest
of four sisters who lived with their parents in a small English
called Dorrington, in Lincolnshire — "the fenlands, known
for its dark, rich loam." Her father was a poultry farmer; her
mother, an elocutionist, had been born in the same village as Alfred,
Lord Tennyson; and she remembers that in her childhood, "we lived
stories." There was no radio, not even any electricity. The girls
went to bed by candlelight, gathering in one bedroom to read and tell
There was also a tiny Methodist chapel, the scene of more storytelling
— "marvelous scriptural stories, like Daniel in the lions’
den, or Moses in the bulrushes. Their suspense and pathos set the
pattern." Even the children’s hymns were stories too. "One
song about Jesus mentioned heralds. I used to get my Shakespearean
heralds mixed up with my Jesus heralds," Jones remembers.
Stories were part of the curriculum in the village school, although,
as World War II moved closer, they were accompanied by gas mask
blackouts, and drills. Bomb craters in the fens, the result of
bombs the Germans released before heading back after a raid, were
the only hits.
For teacher training, Jones attended college at a Yorkshire branch
of Leeds University, where storytelling was not only a component of
her learning, it was also regarded as the best vehicle for
content. This was a lesson she learned well, using it in the British
primary grades where she first taught, and again after coming to
in 1957 with her "very English husband." They visited her
sister, Joan, a war bride, in Florence, New Jersey, where today she
and Jones are next-door neighbors. Sisters Peggy and Bette still live
in England, and Jones visits them each spring, being sure to return
in time for her storytelling part in Trenton’s Heritage Days.
Before becoming a citizen, eligible to teach in American
public schools, Jones taught at the State Home for Girls, then on
Stuyvesant Avenue. "Those girls taught me a thing or two,"
she remembers. "The power of storytelling gave me entree into
their world, which I didn’t know. In those days, you could read five
verses from the Bible. I read on and on. I thought, Ah-ha, we will
get to them through storytelling!"
Jones went on to capture her students’ attention in many ways,
and practical. "It all started with the power of the voice and
the content," she says, stressing her theory that "More is
caught than taught: When you’re didactic and drilling and skilling,
that doesn’t tend to make as much impact." To make a difference,
present material in a narrative or storytelling mode, she says.
It’s a humbling experience to listen to Gwendolyn Jones, and even
more so to talk with her. If you ever suspected before that you
now you know it’s true. A shared conversation is enough to send you
scurrying to your dictionary to look up words like
"enunciate," and the aforemumbled "elocution."
From the late 1960s until her (so-called) retirement in 1994, Jones
taught children’s literature and storytelling, creative arts, reading,
and teacher training courses at the College of New Jersey. During
that time, she also co-chaired the annual Trenton State College
literature and storytelling conferences — 19 times.
In 1982, Jones founded the Garden State Storytellers League (GSSL),
an 80-member affiliate of the National Story League (NSL), founded
in 1903. Jones has also helped NSL in a four-year drive to win
for a postage stamp recognizing the art of storytelling. "Wherever
we go, we take petitions for people to sign," she says. She also
leads letter-writing campaigns and contact with US Postal Service
representatives working on stamp selection.
Besides four little girls by candlelight, "storytelling"
long nights by a campfire, with many voices and many stories, helping
to pass the time and make sense of the world. Homer comes to mind,
and Scheherazade, as well as prophets and poets, seers and singers
through the ages.
But how does a storyteller, tell — without hesitating or
forgetting? Is memorization the answer? Does Gwendolyn Jones memorize
the stories she tells so flawlessly? She says not. Rather than
by rote, she says she internalizes a story, so it becomes part of
her; she delivers it without vocal or paper crutches. Two-thirds of
what Jones calls "the eternal triangle," the story and the
teller, "spend so much time together, it’s like having a stone
with all sorts of jagged edges. You just work it and work it till
it’s smooth and ready for an audience," the third component of
Jones defines the "literary folk tale" as one with a definite
author, such as Hans Christian Anderson. He wrote down his stories,
and it’s considered improper to change their language in telling them.
Because they can be adapted and improved, she prefers the traditional
folk tales that comes from the oral tradition and have no known
Beyond that, the ethics of storytelling and story ownership fill whole
publications, she says.
Jones shares a storytelling tip: The cardinal sin (by the way,
is pronounced with a decided three syllables, rather than the
we may more often hear, or say) is saying anything like "I’m
I made a mistake." Instead, she advises, "you just go on and
don’t let on, or else you say, `Now, you probably didn’t hear me say
before . . .’"
For Gwendolyn Jones, "retirement" is a relative
term. She continues her involvement with GSSL in myriad activities
that include community days, family evenings, festivals, and
She reviews books and recordings for storytelling publications. And
at a recent Saturday morning children’s program, she regaled a young
Barnes & Noble audience with her stories.
She also maintains a demanding schedule of volunteer storytelling
visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and senior centers. In some
homes, she has had to redefine herself as a teller: the stories must
be short and character-driven, and frequent action is a crucial
"I go early so I’ve shaken hands and been embraced by many of
them before performing," she says, and she lingers afterwards
with goodbye hugs. "That touching, it’s just so necessary."
Because she can’t imagine not doing this — "My seniors come
first" — she makes up this schedule a year ahead, and
else revolves around it.
The story of Gwendolyn Jones includes her other-than-storytelling
pursuits. She is "always endeavoring to create an English
she says, of her partiality to hollyhocks, foxgloves, and Canterbury
bells; her outdoor sculpture collection complements the garden. A
People to People and Torch Club International member, she also serves
on the board of the Friends of the Trenton Library.
Proximity to Jones prompts a question about whether she ever mumbles,
slurs, drops her G’s, or dresses down. Surprised a bit by the
she says, ever so clearly, "No, I don’t really think so,"
adding that people, including her students over the years, finally
come to realize "I am as I am as I am." And at 5-foot
tall, she easily carries off the long earrings she favors, and the
hats she loves.
Jones has won a plethora of awards for leadership, teaching, and
awards that only serve to make official the obvious. Fittingly, it
can be said that through her storytelling performances, she has helped
countless people live more happily ever after.
— Pat Summers
Stewart Hall, Princeton Theological Seminary, 609-588-8694. Free.
Sunday, December 9, at 11 a.m.
Trenton, phone 609-695-4151.
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