(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Cameron Gearen was on the staff of the Trapeze student newspaper and not Tabula, the OPRF yearbook, during her years at the high school.)
The Gearen family — John, Ann and their daughter, Cameron — are passionate about poetry. All three are published poets who edit each other’s work, share book recommendations, and attend authors’ readings together. Literary creativity was fostered and encouraged in their home.
“Each of us cares about words to the point that stories and dinner table conversations are more interesting. You can feel the craft in the conversations,” said John.
“Poetry was always around me when I was a kid, primarily because of my mom,” said Cameron. “We read a lot instead of watching TV or playing Uno. We were just super-geeky literature people — and it was a good fit for me because I loved reading and writing.”
As a child, Cameron wrote what she referred to as “epic” plays, drafting neighborhood kids and coercing their parents to watch the productions in her basement. She also wrote a newspaper on yellow legal paper and distributed it to neighbors.
At Oak Park and River Forest High School, Cameron got more serious about writing. Her work was published in the Crest, OPRF’s literary magazine, and she was on the staff of Trapeze, the student newspaper. She won the Hemingway Prize for poetry two years in a row. The Crest, Tabula and Trapeze (student newspaper) rooms were clustered close, creating an adolescent hive of literary activity on the third floor.
“OPRF was a great place to be a creative kid. A lot of my friends were super-creative and they went off to do cool things in film and photography. It was a productive and fertile atmosphere,” Cameron said.
She pursued a bachelor’s degree in English at Wesleyan University and wrote her thesis on contemporary female autobiography, with a focus on the poet Alice Ryerson, founder of the renowned Ragdale artists colony in Lake Forest. Cameron met Ryerson through her mother, Ann, who has been awarded four coveted Ragsdale residencies. She earned her master’s degree in poetry at Indiana University.
Throughout a colorful life, including teaching English in rural Thailand; a nine-month stay in a Thai ashram, where she and her former husband edited a newspaper titled, “Seeds of Peace;” and teaching gigs at the high school and college levels, Cameron has remained devoted to her writing, even while juggling two children. She has written two books, Night, Relative to Day, in 2004, and Some Perfect Year in 2016.
She served as a writer in residence at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home from 2017 to 2019, which gave her the full-circle opportunity to select and mentor the winner of the Hemingway Foundation student essay contest, a re-envisioning of the Hemingway Prize that had encouraged her writing decades ago.
Ann has served as the North Star and inspiration for both her daughter and her husband. She is the co-founder of a tight-knit writing community in Hope Town, Bahamas, where she and John have spent their winters for more than 20 years. Like her daughter, Ann loved reading as a child, especially poetry.
“My family had a set of classic books for children and every book was a different color. The poetry book was purple and that was the one I took to bed at night and read with a flashlight,” she said.
She also loved the poetry units in school, particularly “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes and “Silver” by Walter de la Mare. She can still recite by heart the latter’s opening stanza. “Slowly, silently, now the moon/Walks the night in her silver shoon.”
Ann majored in English at Louisiana State University and earned her doctorate in English language and literature at the University of Chicago. She wrote much of her dissertation, which focused on the developing image of women in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, at her kitchen table, carving out time when her family was sleeping. One of her favorite Yeats females is “Crazy Jane,” about whom he wrote in his later years.
“In his early work, Yeats’ female characters are idealized, pre-Raphaelite women and, frankly, kind of droopy. Crazy Jane is a fascinating, wild character. In the end, his women are much more interesting and mature,” Ann said.
It’s no surprise that Crazy Jane appealed to Ann. In the 1970s she helped edit Primavera, a feminist literary magazine that featured poetry and prose exclusively by women. The now-defunct magazine, which was founded in response to the plethora of little magazines run by and for men, flourished for 25 years.
Ann has had two books of poetry published, Homecoming in 2007, and The Gate in 2020.
John embraced poetry later than his wife and daughter — but he writes faster, so he’s catching up. He has enjoyed a successful career managing the commercial real estate practice of the prestigious Mayer Brown law firm. A lifelong Oak Parker, he is the oldest son of Virginia and Jack Gearen, a former Oak Park trustee and president who shepherded the village’s controversial 1968 Fair Housing Ordinance to passage, an event that prompted several demonstrations on the family’s front lawn.
John’s interest in writing may have been sparked by his mother, whom he remembers as a spirited writer. “She wrote with pistols in her hands, firing off articles and op-ed pieces to major newspapers,” he said.
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, where he started the student newspaper, John enrolled in Yale University Law School and clerked for Spottswood Robinson, an African American judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. He returned to Chicago in the early 1970s.
John has had two books published, Light on Water in 2020, and Joe the Body Pro in 2021. The latter contains poems written in the unique vernacular of his former personal trainer, an Italian fireman from Cicero.
“Joe’s language was so rich. I would come home after working out and write a poem in his voice, based on a riff that he had said during our session. It was tons of fun,” he said.
John and Ann have taken poetry classes together and regularly attend the Sun Valley Writers Conference. During the pandemic, Cameron organized online readings of their work.