Fresno City College museum honors native poet Soto

Restored Old Administration Building devotes space to author and former student.

December 22, 2010 

In the 1970s, Gary Soto was a middling student at Fresno City College when a broken heart led him into the world of poetry.

Soto was crushed when the girl he liked didn't return his affection. But that heartbreak pushed him toward a calling, and Soto soon published his first poem -- "The Little League Tryouts" -- in the college newspaper.

Now the Fresno native and noted author hopes to inspire a new generation of students by opening the Gary Soto Literary Museum on campus.

The one-room museum, under construction on the first floor of City College's newly renovated Old Administration Building, should open by February. He and representatives of the American Association of Museums believe it is the only such museum in the country dedicated to a living writer.

"It's very cool that a student at the college could read and study Gary Soto as part of his course work, and then walk down the street and instantly learn more," said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the museum association based in Washington, D.C.

City College President Cynthia Azari said both current and future students should benefit from Soto's museum and his occasional appearances as a visiting artist.

Simply being exposed to a well-known author should "encourage them to write, maybe encourage them to see things from a different perspective," she said.

For Soto, an award-winning poet and author of at least 40 books, the 700-square-foot museum is a logical extension of his campaign for reading.

Many of his books -- such as "Chato's Kitchen," "Too Many Tamales" and "The Skirt" -- are aimed at young readers. His stories, essays and poems are featured in millions of textbooks.

Soto, 58, has traveled across the state and country to deliver presentations at schools. That -- along with the roughly 100 fan letters that come in weekly -- has shown Soto that there is interest in his life and work.

But now, he's spending less time on the road.

In an e-mail, Soto said "my bones and the skin attached to them can't get around any more! Let visitors come to the museum."

Soto calls that another way of telling his story and showing the hard work behind his craft. He hopes visitors leave feeling inspired to read, which opens windows into other worlds.

The space -- planned by museum designer Jonathan Hirabayashi of Oakland -- traces the arc of Soto's life. He grew up poor in Fresno and barely scraped through school. But he loved books and learned to polish his writing through drafts and editing.

Last week, Soto spoke over the considerable din of construction as pieces of his life settled around him.

A black-and-white photograph of his old south Fresno neighborhood hangs on one wall. A shelf holds a stack of books. Clear plastic panels, lettered with poems, stand in front of tall windows.

Drawers in a cabinet offer bits of the poet's history -- a baptismal gown, a T-shirt he wore in a United Farm Workers march and manuscripts bloodied with criticism.

"This is flat," reads one editing note.

Soto hopes museum visitors will be curious about what they see, from the 1940s manual typewriter to the stack of pinto beans. Those humble beans were his first toys.

"To me, they were Army men," Soto said.

As he spoke about the magic of imagination, a group of sixth-grade students from McCardle Elementary approached on a tour of the campus. Soto hurried toward the group, struck up a conversation and guided students into the museum doorway for a glimpse.

"Have any of you read my books?" he asked.

Hands instantly shot into the air. Teacher Al Chand said the class just finished reading Soto's "The Challenge," which relates the sometimes-clumsy attempts of a young boy to impress a girl.

Stumbling across the author himself was "the most fun kind of accident that could have happened," Chand said. "They [students] were thrilled."

Chand sees the museum as a useful and convenient resource for teachers and students. City College students will be trained as docents.

Sean Henderson, director of student activities at the college, said the museum can be "kind of an internship site for students who are interested in literature and the arts."

Soto grew into that sort of student. He now lives in the Bay Area but is a frequent visitor to Fresno -- as well as a generous benefactor.

A few years ago, Soto donated $300,000 to help restore the auditorium in the Old Administration Building. The iconic red-brick building reopened this month after being shuttered for more than 30 years.

Soto's museum is separate from that donation. He declined to discuss his investment in the space but said Sherry Long, former CEO of the Hampton-Brown publishing company, is a major donor. Exhibits are on loan from Soto for 10 years.

The writer says he'll visit the campus at least monthly until the docent program is running at full speed. But that doesn't mean Soto himself is one of the exhibits.

Visitors won't "find me sitting in one of the chairs reading a book," he said.

The reporter can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6312.

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