The sultan of self-publishing

Lee Brooke has written almost as many books as Hemingway

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By Doug Deuchler

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Local writer Lee Brooke is nothing if not prolific. The author of 20 self-published books over the last three decades has now assembled a delightful assortment of personal reflections titled, Zig-Zagging Through Life: Light-Hearted Recollections, which is selling for $10 at The Book Table.

A lifelong Oak Parker, Brooke, 83, has enjoyed a varied and productive career. He's been an English teacher, a salesman, a musician, and a medical librarian at the University of Chicago Hospital. He even sold ads for the fledgling Wednesday Journal in the early 1980s.

But the one job he's most proud of is his role as chronicler of Oak Park culture and history. For 30 years he has documented notable events, people, and places in the community — from the desegregation and fair housing struggles of the '60s (in which he was very much involved) to the story of pioneers Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings, the first Europeans to settle in what's now Oak Park.

He has written such varied books as Behind the Badge about our local police officers, and Oak Park Places, focusing on 15 well-known buildings. One of my favorites is now a historical curiosity: Let's Eat Out, a 1985 restaurant guide; it's a fun blast from the past since the majority of the '80s eateries profiled in this verbal time capsule are long gone.

Brooke's close friend, Marcy Kubat, who has been his writing collaborator on many books since the 1990s, became Lee's editor for Zig-Zagging. Both members of this prolific self-publishing team are expert fact-gatherers who clearly work well as a team. This time he simply handed his collection of written recollections to her. "She took over and made it all come together," Brooke testifies. "She's an excellent editor."

Kubat is also a professional painter. As a medical editor, she once put together a book on basic techniques for a group of orthodontists who were unable to get their material collected and focused until she came on board.

"All these various writing projects," Brooke explains, "actually got started when I first took part in a group of 15-20 elderly writers called 'The Scribblers,' who met in the Senior Citizens Center once a week in the Oak Park Arms. Retired English teacher Jim Walwark was our moderator. He'd give this white-haired bunch a weekly assignment, such as write about a sibling, a pet, a religious experience, or whatever. I would sometimes procrastinate till several hours before our next meeting. But I always managed to come up with something."

The subtitle, 'Light-hearted Recollections,' says it all, Brooke says.

"This is not a memoir or an autobiography. It's just an assortment of memories and observations. I try to not be negative. It's easy when one is reflecting back on one's life to be critical about parents or family situations or dwell on personal problems from long ago. But I choose not to. I wrote about my very successful older brother Dave. My other brother John died at 70 and this may hurt his family — that there's no tribute to him. I really don't like that."

The many selections anthologized in Zig-Zagging include recollections about teachers, family camping trips, and going to an Oak Park shoe store back when looking at children's feet in the fluoroscope X-ray viewer was a standard part of the experience. There are pieces about ushering with "The Saints" at performing arts events, visits to the barber shop, volunteering with the PADS shelter for the homeless, and his involvement in the local Fair Housing Movement in the 1960s.

Teena Kotchka, a fellow artist friend of Kubat, says, "As I read Zig-Zagging, I was touched by Lee's first article on growing up [as seen] through a child's eyes. Those memories took me back in time, and I felt like I was there with Lee, holding his mother's hand and seeing my first play in the theater. His book makes me realize that we must take time to reflect on those special moments from our past."

"There's a myth that persists," he observes. "People really have such an erroneous idea about writers. Because Marcy and I have done a lot of books together, someone here in Oak Park once said to me, 'What do you two do with all the money you make on your writing?' That's pretty funny. If they only knew how difficult it is, how costly, to self-publish …"

Lee Brooke and Marcy Kubat are active, vital, and engaged, always looking to the future, but often celebrating the past. They typically have a number of projected future assignments and books-in-the-works.

In 2006 Brooke was honored by the Senior Citizens Center of Oak Park-River Forest as an Ulyssean. This award is named for Ulysses who began his adventures and challenges after he was 50 years old. He was celebrated as someone who personifies "successful aging," one who continues growing, creating, developing, and contributing.

In his brief forward to Zig-Zagging Through Life, he muses: "Why write at all? For me, I suppose, it is one way to remain vital and alive. Something implanted deep within me wants to leave a trace, a kind of immortality."

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