BLUE BELL >> Looking around Patricia Nestler’s fourth-floor office in Montgomery County Community College’s Parkhouse Hall, one finds photographs of a remarkable roster of authors — Kurt Vonnegut, looking professorial in a tweed jacket; Tim O’Brien, wearing his trademark baseball cap; John Updike, aged and dapper, with a massive grin on his face — each image framed and displayed on a shelf or tabletop somewhere around the room.
What’s more, in each of these photographs — right beside Vonnegut or Updike or leaning in close to hear something Joyce Carol Oates is saying — sits Nestler, smiling sweetly in a red sweater or blazer, a name tag pinned to her lapel. She’s pictured with Edward Albee, Alex Haley, Jean Shepherd; the list goes on and on.
For an associate professor of English, who’s retiring in the spring, these photos make for some serious souvenirs.
“They were amazing experiences,” she said of meeting each of those authors over the years.
Nestler has made quite a name for herself on the MCCC campus. For the last 36 years, she’s been a mentor to leagues of students, an advisor to a community of writers, a trusted colleague to countless teachers and a dedicated event organizer for the school’s perennial Writers Club. And yes, she’s also rubbed elbows with more than a few literary giants.
Want to hear a story about Norman Mailer? Nestler can recount the time she was on her hands and knees in College Hall scouring the carpet for the 81-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s hearing aid. It was 2006, and Mailer was just moments away from taking the stage in the school’s packed auditorium.
“[Mailer] was wonderful, so eloquent,” she said. “When I met him and first walked in the room, I was really steeled up, because I didn’t know how he was going to be. [Before I came in] he had just dropped his hearing aid, and suddenly I’m down on the floor looking for it. When he got up on stage, he couldn’t really hear what people were asking him,” so Nestler stayed close by, in case he needed assistance. “I felt like we had a real partnership,” she said. “He was really sharp, a really amazing man.”
Authors like Mailer came to MCCC almost every year to impart their wisdom to hordes of blossoming writers from all over the region. They came as keynote speakers for the annual Writers Club Conference, Nestler’s brainchild, a three-day series of writing seminars and workshops.
Nestler started the Writers Club Conference in 1988, and it soon became something of a mecca for area poets, novelists and essayists; anyone who put pen to paper was interested in the event. That year, however, the conference was barely anything at all, just some people gathered in the basement of the school’s cafeteria.
“That was my concept of a conference,” Nestler said with a laugh, shaking her head behind her desk.
Modest as it was, that first conference was a success, and it drew yet another crowd the following year.
“But in 1990, I got this brainwave,” Nestler said. “‘Why don’t I apply for money and get a big speaker?’ That year, I applied for six internal and external grants. I thought, ‘If I can get one grant, we can bring in somebody big.’”
In an unexpected turn of events, Nestler got every grant she applied for. It was by far more money than she had expected — and perhaps a bit more than she knew how to spend.
“You’ll never get the money again if you don’t spend it, and I knew that,” she said of the grants. “So we sprang from six workshops [per year] and a coffeehouse in the basement of the cafeteria to a three-day conference, with 18 writers in addition to the keynote speaker,” who happened to be National Book Award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates.
From that point on, it became almost common for a legendary writer to make a brief stop at MCCC every couple years or so.
“My goal became to make MontCo [MCCC] a cultural center for writers. That’s what I always said, and it got to be the slogan; it summed it up,” she said. “I always had this idea of participatory learning. I really didn’t want students to just be in the classroom. So I was determined to get the college out in the community and the community into the college. [MCCC President] Karen Stout had a vision and could see that.”
In fact, Stout said she knew from day one what Nestler was capable of accomplishing.
“Pat [Nestler] had all the ingredients for a successful Writers Club Conference before I got here as president,” Stout said. “When I got here, I realized [the conference] was one of the many solid anchors for this institution. I was an English major as an undergraduate, so I share Pat’s passion for reading, for exposing students to contemporary literature, for exposing the community to the power of the written word — and I just wanted to give her all of the support that she needed to move forward with her passion. So, for me, it was an easy decision to support her.”
Decades after she first started the humble conference, Nestler has amassed a wealth of anecdotes about writers who for most people are merely the subjects of lore. Following up her story about Mailer, she relayed the time Kurt Vonnegut fondled a student’s dessert during a pre-conference dinner at the William Penn Inn.
The student, who she said by no means came from money, had been anxious about dining in the Inn’s opulent Commonwealth Room.
“Some of the students who worked on the conference had backgrounds where they were either impoverished or had never really been in an elegant dining room,” Nestler said. Taking her aside, the student “says to me, ‘I don’t go anywhere where I don’t eat off of take-out trays.’ Well, Vonnegut overheard him. So, later, when the dessert came out, Vonnegut reached across the table and put his finger into the student’s chocolate and said, ‘Mmm! It’s good!’” This weird, random gesture “really disarmed the student” and eased his nerves. Not to mention the little vignette brings to life the sort of bleakly playful sense of humor Vonnegut has become known for in his work.
“What I’m trying to say is Vonnegut was so impressed with the students and what we were all doing,” Nestler continued. “He spoke at a lot of different venues, but he put in extra time with us. People just couldn’t ask him enough questions.”
The success of the annual Writers Club Conference still amazes Nestler.
“I never thought I’d be doing this,” she said. “I just like working with students. I never thought I’d be in charge of a production like this. It’s amazing … I think it’s very important to have activities that have writing in them. I think you’re a writer even if you don’t get published. It’s a solitary activity. So having all these people at workshops and conferences gives writers a support system.”
More than anything, though — more than meeting a literary icon; more than adding another photo to the shelf — Nestler said the Writers Club and the annual conference were just ways to engage her students and help them see the world differently.
“To me, education shouldn’t be something that’s just a vocational certificate,” she said. “I didn’t ever see college as just something that you were taking to learn a skill or learn a job. Education is a way of learning to think and approach life. I think it’s very important to get that out there to students in the community.”
Even though the Writers Conference has recently been discontinued due to lack of adequate funding, the Writers Club itself will endure after Nestler’s retirement. Not surprisingly, though, Stout expects the English teacher to leave quite a void once she takes her leave in the spring.
“It’s going to be hard to fill her shoes,” the college president said. “It’s rare when a faculty member leaves and you’re really critically thinking about succession planning. I am worried about identifying a [new] faculty advisor for the Writers Club. That’s how far her work has risen. I just know how much heart and soul she has put into it.”