Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Preston's written words chronicle his journey

Dwain "Doc" Preston poses for a photo at the Quincy Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. Preston is a retired QND teacher and veteran. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 4, 2017 8:45 am Updated: Dec. 4, 2017 8:46 am

QUINCY -- When his 11 grandchildren were younger, Dwain "Doc" Preston would write each one a book as a gift.

Years later, he estimates there are about 150 books he has written accumulated in four households around the country. He wrote a sonnet for each of his daughters when they were married, and a sort of goodbye poem to the youth of his grandchildren when each turned 13.

Two years ago, Preston's children compiled a book of poems he has written as an 80th birthday present. "Don't Rush Me" is dedicated to his late wife, Regina.

"I didn't write to publish," Preston said. "I wrote because I enjoyed it, and my audience really appreciated it."

His earliest poem was written in high school, to a girl. His first published poem was "Zero," about a cat he had on the farm as a child.

Born in Barry, Preston, 81, was the son of a World War II tank crewman and a strong matriarch. Preston was 8 when his dad shipped off to Germany in 1944.

"I remember we missed dad terribly, but my mom was tough," he said, noting that his mother was raised in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. "She took care of three boys. There was dad's allotment, but that wasn't much (money)."

He attended four different one-room schoolhouses, allowing him to glean information from the older children. By eighth grade, he said, he essentially was treading water.

Graduating from Liberty High School in a class of 30 students, he enrolled at Western Illinois University.

"That took me out of the cornfield," he said.

It always had been his goal to become an educator like his uncle -- who had taught for 55 years in one-room schools -- but after receiving his bachelor's degree, he joined the Air Force with the intention of becoming an officer. Instead of attending Officer Training School, he joined Chinese language school, where, for eight months, he spent six hours per day, five days a week studying at Yale University. He still can speak the language.

"They were trying to build up a backlog of linguists," he said, noting that much of the work he did after training was classified. "Every once in awhile I'll read in the paper about the kind of stuff we were doing."

Vietnam broke out six months before he left the Air Force, but for the most part, his stretch in the military was quiet.

Family man

Soon after returning to Quincy, he met Regina Higgins. The two married and set to building a family. They had four children.

"We had a child in 1963, '64, '65 and '66, and a picked up a dog along the way in '67," he said. "Parenting is fun, but grandparenting is better."

A little more than 44 years passed from the night they were introduced by a mutual friend at the Park Bowl -- a bowling alley that used to be at the corner of 12th and Harrison -- to their final night together in Topeka, Kan., spent in a hotel during a stop in 2006 on the way to a nephew's wedding reception in Wichita.

"I couldn't wake her up the next morning," he said.

Preston drove home by himself, despite protests from his children. He says those hours on the road were among his best and most difficult.

"Everybody was saying, 'Don't drive home. Don't be by yourself,SSRq" he said, "but I had time to think. I kind of relived a lot of what we had done in our lives."

His four daughters all have careers they enjoy, he said, and are spread out across the country. Each has a family of her own now.

"One of the things that is joyful about being a parent is watching them grow up and succeed," he said.

Teaching

Two former teachers vouched for him when he returned from the Air Force and helped him get the job at Quincy Junior High School, teaching English and history. He immediately started pursuing his master's degree, as well, commuting to and from Macomb during summers.

"I loved my first year of teaching," he said. "I was pretty much given freedom in the classroom to do what I wanted. You can't do that now that you have a curriculum block."

He still works as a substitute teacher and always prefers subbing at QJHS because his "heart is there."

"We had a principal named Ronald Clark, and a painting of him is hanging in the hall," he said. "I stop and look at that every once in a while and think about the days I was there."

After six years at QJHS, he took a job as a department chairman of a national program at the University of Illinois in Champaign. While there, he decided to put the G.I. Bill to use and work toward his doctorate. He began teaching at WIU while completing the dissertation for his doctorate, but once he had received the degree, he decided to leave the education field and become an insurance salesman.

"I don't know where that came from," he said. "It was just crazy."

He likes to joke that Regina earned her "PHT" while he worked toward his degree -- "putting hubby through."

A year later, he took an opening at Quincy Notre Dame. He retired from the school 26 years later. He also taught at John Wood Community College in the evenings.

The most memorable class he taught was specifically geared toward seniors, teaching them how to write memoirs. He taught the class for more than a decade.

"I had an older guy, he was 95, and he wrote a paper about how his parents left him and his sister at an orphanage, about how he and his sister looked out the window watching them drive off in a horse and carriage," he said. "When it was all finished, I gave him a paper that said, 'Congratulations.' This guy had tears in his eyes. It was the first time anyone had recognized him for doing something like that. Nobody had ever told him he could write."

He has stayed in touch with many former students through social media.

"Every now and then, they'll say that I taught them this or that," he said. "That's always fun."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.

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