by Zac Godwin
Professor John Fidler brings gravitas and a breadth of experience to his work as a teacher.
Professor John Fidler has written in nearly every format and genre over his decades of experience. He’s worked all over the area, including major cities like New York and Boston. Today, he’s back home in Reading, where he’s discovered his latest passion: teaching.
Fidler is very proud of his education: he graduated from Exeter High school, obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Ursinus College and then a master’s in English from the University of Chicago.
“Chicago is, I don’t mind saying it, tied for number 3 with Yale on the college ranking,” he said with a smile on his face.
In addition to being an adjunct professor at RACC and Alvernia University, Fidler works as the copy editor at the Reading Eagle. Fidler has written for online publications like Senses of Cinema, All About Jazz, and Cineaste, and was a media spokesman following the Three Mile Island incident. Fidler certainly left his mark on the world of journalism, and now seeks to expand his horizons even more with writing fiction and teaching college students, showing that he’s not stopping any time soon.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
This is my third career: I started off in journalism at the Reading Times, then went into public relations for 23 years, went from the Reading Times to Metropolitan Edison, and after a year there, I got shipped out to Three Mile Island to work in the press office after the disaster. And then I kind of hopped around to other utilities – that was sort of my niche for a while. And then I was recruited to come back [to Met Ed] by my old boss. Quick lesson there, don’t burn your bridges. You never know who’s going to call.
I spent about 6 years doing press writing and media work. Then I got bumped after the new CEO wanted his own staff. After that, I was on my own and found a couple of jobs I wasn’t happy with. Then I worked on my own and I founded my own company – a PR consulting firm – for just 2 years. To run your own company, you need to have the right temperament. My temperament is: I liked doing the work, I didn’t like selling every 5 minutes. So after 2 years of looking for money, I came back to Reading. I missed writing and got the job I have now at the Reading Eagle. Even though I’m on the copy desk, one of the requests I made was that I wanted to do some writing. So I started off doing reviews, and ended up doing quite a lot and got a column. I wrote an op-ed column for 10 years — ended that about a year and a half ago. I said everything I wanted to say. And then I started writing fiction, which is what I’m writing now.
You’ve done a lot. What are all the job titles you’ve had?
I ran my own business; I was a consultant; I was a vice president of a public relations firm in New York; a corporate speech writer for CEOs; media spokesman for the nuclear power industry, and now: critic for several different art forms. I’ve done book reviews [and] music reviews; right now I’m the editor at the Reading Eagle. I’ve been a reporter, a columnist; so really I’ve done all three jobs at a newspaper that you can do: editor, reporter, and columnist. And now teacher. I’m an adjunct professor at two colleges, which I’m very proud of.
Did any of your careers affect you more than the rest?
I feel it was everything – although writing the column and hearing from readers regularly meant a lot. Even when people would disagree with me, and some would disagree vociferously. I wrote several columns about sexual abuse by priests and, in fact, one of my earlier series was with Mark Rossi, who is now a state representative. He was victimized by a priest when he was 13. He reached out to me and said “I’d like to tell my story.” We knew that it was controversial, but my problem wasn’t with the church but with the priests, the abusers, and the hierarchy in the church.
I notice that you don’t have one specific kind of writing that you do.
Yeah, I’ve got several different lanes, and I can still fall back on the arts writing; I did all kinds of reviews for the Reading Eagle. I even drove to Philly for a few seasons and reviewed plays and opera. One mark of a good journalist is that he or she can pretty much cover anything, and I feel the same way about critics. Once you know how to write criticism, with some background you can write about restaurants, opera, and back again because you know how to write a review; you just kind of have to get schooled.
Have you won any awards?
One of my speeches was published in a book, which was an honor. I won one award, which I guess makes me an award winning writer. The Pennsylvania Bar Association gives out awards every year to writers who write about the legal profession. Basically, I assembled a panel to watch 12 Angry Men. It was the 50th anniversary of the release of the film. So I got the brand new district attorney, the president judge of the Berks County court system, and the leading criminal defense attorney, assembled in a room and we watched 12 Angry Men and then asked [the attorneys and judge] questions about it. I did this piece, entered it, and it won an award. I think it was for feature articles – either special assignment or feature articles.
Why did you become a teacher?
Well, I wish it was a romantic kind of answer. Really it was a matter of realizing that I was approaching retirement and I thought I could use a little extra money to start doing things like paying off credit cards because you don’t want to be carrying a lot of debt in retirement. So that’s what I did. I thought, “Okay, I can pay off some credit card and get my financial house in order,” and in the bargain, I found that I love teaching. And I wish I had started it ten years ago instead of six years ago.
And you’ve told me previously that your brother was a teacher.
Yeah, he has been teaching for – my goodness – 35 years? Maybe even 40? He teaches fifth grade in the Exeter school district. He’s beloved by his students; he’s perfect. He’s three inches taller than I, so he’s this tall guy among these fifth graders. But you know, I can say that when I was looking for what I wanted to do to earn money, I didn’t just want to take any job. And I think it’s fair to say that my brother was an inspiration. It’s good to have inspiration.
What do you do in your free time?
Well, I don’t have much of it. I love films so I watch a lot of them. I recently got rid of my television, so I’m spending more time reading and writing. [Having] friends over for dinner, I like to cook. Reading, writing, cooking, going to concerts. I like going to concerts that I’m not writing about. I can relax and enjoy the music. Not that I don’t enjoy it when writing about it, but you’re listening in a different way. I write book reviews too, and they’re very challenging. When you’re reading a book to write about it, it’s different than just taking a book to the beach. I go to New York every once in a while. I just like going there, hanging out, seeing movies that never make it to Reading, going to the opera. I go to the opera here in Reading; two or three of those a year. It’s on a screen of course, you’re not seeing it live.
Tell me about your history of writing. How did you get into the field?
I think of two beginnings actually: I wrote for the High school paper—Exeter High School—the Exeter Eco it was called. Then when I went to college, I was editor of the college weekly newspaper. So does everyone who writes and edits for their college and high school newspaper go on to be a writer? No, not everyone. I think if you have an affinity, if you enjoy writing and editing, then that’s what you do. Did I write stories as a six-year-old? No. I guess it all started in high school. I dabbled in some poetry which was just shameful. Embarrassing poetry.
What are some of your likes and dislikes?
Well, I think when it comes to writing, you have to be precise. And that drips over into other aspects of life. I’m very big on customer service. I’ve written about it. So when I go to a restaurant or a store and I’m paying my money, I expect the service to be good. If the customer service isn’t good, I usually talk to someone about it, like the owner. It’s interesting how writing – and the things that you do when you write, when you pay attention to it – can have a positive impact on other things that you do. So when someone isn’t precise, isn’t exacting, doesn’t focus on details in any field, that kind of rubs me the wrong way. I think there’s a link between that and my idea of customer service.
What would you say defines you as a person?
That’s a good question. I guess what defines me is what I look for in other people, and I like to think that I focus on the same things. Compassion. And by the way you could probably ask ten different people about John Fidler and compassion and they’d go, “Compassion!? He’s not compassionate!” So seriousness about one’s life, the ability to look at one’s life – introspection – I think that’s important. You have to know yourself and what your thoughts are. Since I started teaching, if I’m going to find fault with your writing or your classmates’ writing, I think I have to be able to find them in me too.
As you spend your time editing, writing, and teaching, what would you say drives you forward?
Let me use an analogy: I played piano as a kid. We all do, but I studied again as a young man in my 20s. I was at the newspaper the first time, and studied with a woman here in Reading who had done everything but concertize. She was a brilliant pianist, so I thought that I wanted to play again. Played for three years. And what kept me going there, I like to think, is what keeps me going now—35 years later. She always put the carrot just out of reach. So I’d reach for it, and she’d move it along. She was very big on exercises and scales. She had a metronome on her piano, and so I’d do the first round, and do it very well.
Then she’d say “Okay,” she had a very soft voice. I was Mr. Fidler, even though I was 26, “Mr. Fidler.” And then she’d take the metronome and set it faster. “Now do it again.” And I’d get through it okay. I’d ask, “Can we stop now?” “Oh no, let’s do it again.” And she’d set it even faster. And that was how she taught. I was playing Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky—not concert pieces. It was fun. And so, your question, What drives me forward?” is to keep raising the bar, if you will. That is why I wanted to try fiction, to see if I could do it. It might not work, I’m going to give myself two or three years, and if I don’t get anything published, well then I can fall back on my nonfiction writing. I want to give it a shot.
Did you feel like you had reached that bar?
No, I think that even within our comfort zones we can try new things, and so this is my way of trying it for now.
What would you say to students who are aspiring writers?
It sort of reminds me of the old joke: you get out of school, you go for your first job, you sit down in the interview, and the employer says, “Do you have any experience?” and you say, “No,” and they say they won’t hire without experience. Well how am I going to get experience if you won’t hire me? So I think back to how I first got published outside the Reading Eagle. I sent a pitch letter one time – I was in PR doing pitch letters all the time. I knew how to write a good pitch letter. So I wrote to Senses of Cinema, and I wanted to do a book review. So I pitched it, wrote right to the editor of the journal, and he said, “Sure, why not?” They liked it, and that was nine years ago.
So back to the question, what I would say to a student is to do what I did. Only do it better. Instead of sending one letter, send out a hundred. There’s so many online publications, great publications. I like to tell the story of James Joyce: he sent his first collection of stories to 22 publishers before it was accepted. It was Dubliners, one of the best collections of short stories you’ll ever have. So just find a door in which to put your toe, and put it there.