Several years ago, an entrepreneurial storyteller came to Boca Grande to share a tale with children as part of a special program at the Johann Fust Community Library.
Gladys Varga is an integrated-arts storyteller and theatre teaching specialist. She combined her education along with experiences from her lifetime – some true and others fictional – and created a business of bringing them to life for others to enjoy.
She grew up in an area of dairy farms in Medina, Ohio, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland.
“We were city folks transplanted to the country. My mother’s doctors told her the country air and certainly the iron in the well water would be beneficial to her health. My parents built the house I was born and raised in,” she said.
Her mom and dad bought the land in the late 1940s. Gladys still owns a piece of the property today.
“I’ll be eventually passing it along to my children, because my daughter has expressed an interest in building on it,” she said.
As a child born in 1954, there were only a few children who lived in the Medina area to socialize with, so she spent the majority of her time playing outside when the weather permitted. She recalls playing in bales of hay, which she was told not to do because of her allergies, and venturing across a small creek at the back of the property.
They didn’t have any farm animals, but they had four dogs and 18 cats.
Her best friend was her dog, Sporty, a Dalmatian-shepherd mix, all white with big black spots. They literally grew up together. When Gladys was a baby, Sporty slept under her crib.
“He was my constant companion. He roved around with me everywhere. And then he passed away when I was about nine years old. But he had a good long life, because he was 18 years old when he died.”
Gladys recalls one elementary school teacher who took on the task of creating the school’s first library, and she asked Gladys to be an assistant.
“I was so happy to help. At that point I fell even deeper in love with libraries and books,” she said.
When she was in 9th grade, her parents moved back to Cleveland, and she went to high school in Parma Heights, Ohio. She was editor of the literary magazine at the high school and knew she wanted to pursue a career in the literary arts by that time. She also took French and was quite fluent in it, having the opportunity to spend two weeks as an exchange student in France.
Gladys is married to Steve, her college sweetheart.
They have two children, Cheryl and Andy.
Cheryl lives in central Ohio and is a counselor and art therapist. She is a talented visual artist and works with disadvantaged youth and Veterans, among others. Andy lives in Rhode Island and is in the computer business.
“He has been enthralled with computers since he was a teenager. When he graduated from high school, he could build a computer in 18 minutes. Now he works on security systems and networks, and every time I talk to him he’s earned another certification. Both my kids are wonderful. They’ve had challenges like everyone does, but they’re smart, funny and respectful. They’re both very
self-supportive and have always done well in school. They’re fantastic children. I love them dearly and they completely astound and amaze me to this day.
I am very blessed,” she said.
Gladys and Steve moved their family to Florida in 1991, when the kids were in grade school; but they were not happy about it.
“They wanted to be back in Ohio with their friends, and by high school, they made it very clear they were going back up north for college. They missed winter, and they liked the seasons changing, so they both went back.”
Gladys began doing storytelling
programs at her librarian job after she
attended a storytelling festival and workshop at a professional development seminar.
“I went to that and I felt like I had finally found what I was meant to do. I did not know storytelling was an art form at that time. I didn’t know I could do that as a profession. It’s like I was bitten by the storytelling bug, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
In 1995, she began taking workshops, researching books and started a business called Gladtales Productions. She did her own marketing and landed jobs doing programs in schools and libraries when she moved to Tampa.
“Anyone can argue, but I say it’s the oldest art form in the world. People used to tell stories with drawings. Cavemen told them by grunts and motions. In the middle ages, that’s how everyone got their news. Everything was through telling stories.”
In 2000, she heard about a storyteller program opportunity at Elsie Quirk Library in Englewood and decided to apply.
“It was the first time I had been to that library and area, and I just loved it. We eventually bought a home in the area,” she said.
As a child, reading was her favorite hobby.
“I had a very active imagination, and I was a veracious reader – I just loved to read. My mom would take me to the little library in town, and she’d drop me off and go do her errands. My brother Franchot, who is 15 years older than me, began reading to me as early as I can remember,” she said.
Franchot was an English major and eventually became an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, which is how Gladys ended up attending the same university.
“When I was in 10th grade, my brother invited me to come to class with him. And since I pretty much idolized him, I jumped at the chance. He was always so smart. I was intimidated by him because he was so smart and knew so much about literature,” she said.
She can remember in great detail watching her brother instruct a lecture hall full of students, standing under a “No Smoking” sign while puffing on a pipe.
“It was the 70s – a time of liberalism, and he was a classic literary professor.”
She majored in English and had a desire to major in library science, but the school didn’t offer such a program. Then she discovered that the university taught evening courses in library science; so she took those and worked with an advisor to create her own independent major and pursued it. She later earned a bachelor of arts degree in English Literature and library science.
Upon graduation she was offered a job at the university’s medical library, but two weeks later her father unexpectedly died.
“It was my first day at work there when they called to tell me. And because of my mother’s health, I decided to go back to Cleveland and be with her for a while,” she said.
Once she was back home, she held a couple of secretarial positions and then was a substitute teacher for a while, working in several school media centers.
She said her parents always called her a miracle baby, because her mother’s health took a turn for the worse after Franchot was born, and her mother wasn’t sure she could have a second child.
Gladys said she loves her job in Boca Grande because of the people and the community.
“I get to live and work in paradise. Every day I love coming to work. It’s such a unique place. And Toni and Mary are fantastic people to work with. They’ve been so helpful and encouraging. I’m thriving,” she said.
Gladys presents storytelling at 10:30 a.m. every Tuesday at the library. She’s currently working on putting together a program for adults. The next time you’re browsing for a good book at Johann Fust, look for Gladys and say hello.