A man, living alone in a forest, stumbles across a baby eagle, taking him home, and raising him with the chickens. Some years later, a hunter comes along and frees the now-grown eagle. The eagle takes flight and, for the first time in his life, the eagle is looking up instead of down." This tale, narrated in a distinctive Southern drawl, is told by John Edward Rice. Like the eagle in his story, Rice seems to be continuously gazing upward toward the next prospect in his life.
A self-professed jack-of-all-trades, Rice has had success in "exploiting any ability and talent the good Lord has seen fit to plant within me." Now he's using his entertainment talents to perform for audiences at venues ranging from schools to festivals, spinning his special yarn of folk tale and folk act.
"I love telling stories, telling tall tales," he says. "It's pure entertainment that brings laughter to my audience." In his act, he also performs feats of magic, strums his guitar while singing folk songs, and relates jokes, anecdotes, and bits of Deep South lore.
Rice has also written five novels. And, like his oral prose, each contains a moral lesson, a certain truism, gained during his eighty-four years. He grew up in the backwoods of central Florida, an atmosphere of cowboys and cow whips, he says--"snaky whips used to round up wild Spanish cattle in the woods and drive them down to shipping ports." These backwoods later became the backdrop of one of his novels, Green Rusty Oranges, published in 2000. In it, Rice chronicles the saga of a Cracker family--people as leathery and rugged as the exterior of a rusty green orange, "but of quality within."
Family and faith are inextricably bound together in all of his novels. "I learned the Christian faith from my father, a prominent minister, who helped build a church in Montgomery, Alabama, and save several others from foreclosure during the Great Depression," he says. "Faith has affected me a great deal."
Rice followed in his father's steps. He was a Methodist minister for twenty-six years, serving in the Florida conference and founding three churches himself. During World War II and the Korean War, he was an Army chaplain in hospitals and aboard troopships.
After leaving the Army, Rice returned to the ministry, until a heart ailment forced him into "early retirement." He became a teacher at a remedial school in Georgia. "Teaching at this school for troubled youth, failing youth, youth with various problems, you get this intense satisfaction from knowing that you helped these youngsters get their diploma, straighten themselves out, and do something with their lives," he says.
Then, Rice says, his heart problems "closed in on me again." At fifty-seven, he "retired" for a second time--and promptly began a third career as a family entertainer, becoming a staple at such venues as the Dillard House resort in Dillard, Georgia, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. His distinctive brand of storytelling, inspired by local folk tales and his own experiences, carried him to various Cracker festivals in Florida and country celebrations in Georgia.
One passion evolved into another. "I think that writing and storytelling are naturally related, and I just naturally progressed toward the four novels that I have written," he says.
Rice's first novel, Invisible Cathedral Walls, is a testament to his father. "This self-made father of mine, reminiscent of Lincoln, was of course my idol, next to the masterful Jesus that he was always making known to me." Green Rusty Oranges came next, followed by Ransomed Warrior, After the Night, and Angles and Angels--each dealing with various aspects of the faith that he became so familiar with as a pastor.
In his storytelling and in his novels, Rice explores facets of the human condition with a thoughtful spirituality and humanism, laced with an undertone of bittersweet wit.
"I'm a firm believer in healthy laughter, humor like Groucho Marx's, which helps a person get through a hard or challenging moment in his or her life," Rice says. "And that's what I tried to do as a chaplain, and that's what I do as an entertainer."
John Edwards Rice B.D. '43
March 31, 2004