What could have been: 1950's Perham teacher and author rewrites his life's greatest tragedy
Chuck Dowdle, 93, was a teacher in Perham in the early 1950's. Now, he's a published author living in California. His latest book, "Twin Lights," is a rewrite of his life's greatest loss, lived out in Perham, and tells a totally different life story set here.
Some images stick with us forever.
For 93-year-old Chuck Dowdle, the image of his twin sons — born prematurely at the Perham hospital in August 1953 — lying in their bassinettes during the one short day of their fragile lives, is a mental image that never faded with time.
It stayed with him so strongly through the years that, in 2011, he sat down and wrote a story about those two little lives that could have been.
Last month, a decade after he first began professionally writing, Dowdle published "Twin Lights," a novel that gives his sons the lives they could have had — in Perham, where Dowdle and his wife lived for two years after moving there in '53.
Otto and Evelyn Krueger, who allowed teachers to live upstairs in their home, offered their downstairs apartment to the new Perham High School English and social studies teacher and his young wife. Dowdle began his teaching job that fall, still intensely grieving the recent loss of his sons.
The couple left for California two years later and never returned to Perham, but Dowdle said the memory of the town remains strong in his mind.
"I loved living in Perham," he said. "Just the friendliness, the openness… I'd go out to Little Pine or Big Pine Lake and fish… The kids (I taught) were great."
He remembers Perham with such fondness that he chose it as the setting for the beginning of his sons' fictional life stories. He imagined them as baptized and confirmed at St. Henry's Catholic Church, where, in grimmer reality, their funeral was held. He imagined them as graduates and co-valedictorians of Perham High School.
As Dowdle was researching his novel, he learned that it used to be fairly common for premature babies to go blind, before more recent medical advancements were made, so he wrote one of his sons as being blind. The small-town Perham setting of the book, he said, created an ease of movement for that character. To ensure proper representation of a blind person, he interviewed a blind man prior to writing the book.
In addition to his research, Dowdle had to learn a few new skills in order to tell this story, including how to use the computer. Having grown up during the Great Depression in Crookston, Minnesota, computers weren't commonly used until much later in his life. Over the 10 years he spent writing this novel, he honed his computer skills from scratch.
"(Writing 'Twin Lights') was a labor of love," Dowdle said. "In my teaching career, writing was always what I enjoyed doing."
As a teacher, Dowdle would write out all the assignments he gave his students. Fifteen years before he retired, he attended a writing conference and then officially began writing for himself. He wrote 77 articles for the Crookston Daily Times, recalling his childhood there in 1930s. Those articles were later compiled and published into a memoir. After that, he wrote a few more books, instructional books for kids who are learning to read and write, before this latest novel, "Twin Lights."
"This is a story about the love I had for my two sons who might've lived," Dowdle said, adding, "It's a story about my love for those who live in the Perham community."
Now retired, Dowdle lives in Cambria, California. His sons are buried at St. Henry's Cemetery in Perham.