When Walter R. Brooks started at UR for college in 1904, it seemed like he was unhappily on track to go from there to medical school, and then become a doctor.
But he’d never graduate UR and, in a few years he’d drop out of medical school altogether. Brooks would not become a doctor.
Instead, Brooks would write 26 kids’ books about Freddy, a very smart pig.
Freddy lives on a farm in upstate New York run by Mr. and Mrs. Bean, with animal friends: a scrappy cat named Jinx, a good-humored cow named Mrs. Wiggins, and a rooster with a penchant for lengthy speeches named Charles.
As far as talking pigs in literature go, Freddy doesn’t have the fame of Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web” or Babe in “Babe.” Freddy never got a movie deal.
But books from the series sold thousands of copies when they were first published from 1927 to 1958. The most recent reprinting of a book was in September 2016 — the publisher apparently found the campaign season an appropriate time to reprint “Freddy the Politician,” in which Mrs. Wiggins runs for office.
In a 1994 article for the New York Times Book Review, Adam Hochschild wrote that the Bean farm was “the moral center of my childhood universe.”
The series inspired a fan club, Friends of Freddy, which is upwards of 300 members strong. The club holds conventions where Freddy’s songs are sung, talks are given, and amateur theatrical adaptations are enacted. Friends of Freddy also does book donation projects, and quarterly publishes “The Bean Home Newsletter” — taking the name from 1943’s “Freddy and the Bean Home News” — which includes essays on Brooks and the series, reports from the conventions, and more novel pieces.
One article by Vice-president Randy Cepuch compares Freddy to other famous Freddies. For example, compared to “A Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher Freddy Krueger, Cepuch notes: “Our Freddy is a much better poet.”
Michael Cart, an author and editor of children’s and young-adult fiction,, was president of Friends of Freddy for three terms. He also wrote a book, “Talking Animals and Others,” on Brooks.
Cart spoke to the Campus Times about Brooks’ life. Born in 1886 in Rome, New York, Brooks’ first writing was the plays he would put on with his cousins.
In 1904, Brooks went to UR, where he was in the Chess club, Captain of the football team, and a brother in Delta Kappa Epsilon. He left early to go to medical school.
Brooks dropped out of medical school (which was more his family’s plan than his own, Cart wrote) to marry a Rochesterian teacher named Anne Shepard. He worked for a year at an ad agency in Utica, before working at the Red Cross in public relations for 10 years.
Brooks spent much of his life working at publications run by his close friend Frances Rufus Bellamy. This led him from the Red Cross’ magazine, to a liberal magazine called The Outlook, to The New Yorker in the 1930s.
Brooks had already begun to have his own stories published in 1915, Cart said, and by the time The Outlook folded in the 1930s, “Freddy the Pig” books were already in print.
The first book is “Freddy Goes to Florida,” in which Freddy and a band of his fellow farm animals decide that the winters in Centerboro — a fictional upstate New York town — are too brutal (sound familiar?) and go to Florida for the season.
The founder of Friends of Freddy, playwright Dave Carley, said that the organization was born when he wrote to the series’ publisher to see if they could connect him with Brooks — he wanted to write a letter.
Carley learned that Brooks had died in 1958, shortly after selling the TV rights to a series he wrote about a talking horse, spawning the kitschy “Mr. Ed” series in the 1960s. According to Cart, Brooks decided to sell to give his second wife, Dorothy Collins, an inheritance.
Collins, it turns out, was still alive. The publisher gave Carley her contact information. He said he wrote to her asking if she ever got letters from other fans. She sent back six similar letters she got.
“I [wrote] to those six and suggested we trade books and stuff and it kind of blossomed from there,” Carley said.
While the club had a hand in the reprintings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Carley said that the club is mostly nostalgia-based, but they seem to have more in common than age group and fandom.
“I think everybody in the club credits the books with getting them involved with writing,” Carley said.
Cart backed that up. “It was one of the reasons I went to [journalism] school. Because Freddy was a journalist among many other things.” Cepuch, had a similar story. “I spent some time as a journalist and I think that the ‘Bean Home News’ had a little something to do with that.”
But for some, the impact extends beyond even that.
“I became a vegetarian at the age of 12, and I’m still a vegetarian 50-some-odd years later,” Cepuch said. “And I think that has something to do with respecting the animals in the Freddy books.”
Editor’s Note (4/27/2020): The original version of this article did not include Walter R. Brooks’ full name.
Correction (4/27/2020): The original version of this article said that The Bean Home Newsletter is published biannually. It is, in fact, published quarterly.