Todd Parnell: Motivations are Key to Effective Memoir Writing

Todd Parnell
Drury University President Todd Parnell doesn’t write for money. He writes to enjoy, to honor his family’s legacy and to give back to the community; passionate motivations strongly evident in his three captivating family memoirs. Proceeds from two of the books go to nonprofits, providing them with more than $50,000 to date.

He wrote his books the old-fashioned way: with pen and pad.

Mom at War
Todd’s mother, Jean, became a war widow in 1943 when her first husband was killed in Sicily. She joined the American Red Cross to honor his memory and during 1944 and 1945 drove a two-ton truck across Germany giving doughnuts, coffee and comfort to our front-line troops.

“She never provided details of her experiences to me and my brother, Patrick,” Todd says.

Jean gave up her secrets more than fifty years after the war when she showed Todd a wooden German ammunition box full of her letters, photographs, diaries and other memorabilia. Materials included accounts of witnessing airplane dogfights, surviving a bombing of her quarters and strafing of her truck by enemy aircraft, suffering frostbite and of being at the Battle of the Bulge.

Todd turned the materials into Mom at War. He gave a copy to his parents, Jean and Ben, during a Mother’s Day lunch. Proceeds from book sales go to the Greater Ozarks Regional Chapter of the American Red Cross and to the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Postcards from Branson
Todd’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather grew up in Branson, Missouri. They were bankers who were leaders of progress and action. Branson also was where Todd and Patrick were raised, so it was natural for Todd to want to write about the area.

“This book was more difficult to organize than Mom at War,” Todd says. “Materials were not kept in a single box; they were in many boxes in a basement. My family kept every scrap of paper they touched, so the materials were a treasure-trove of documented memories.”

Where to start? An opening occurred when Todd’s parents invited him and Patrick on a cruise without their wives so they could spend some private time together. Todd quizzed his parents almost daily during the cruise on what they remembered about Branson. It was many years later before he returned to his notes and compared them with the photos, articles and other materials in the basement boxes, piecing together the stories that became this book.

“I’m proud of the stories of my kinfolks,” Todd says. “They’re not famous and nobody’s going to write those things for them. I wanted to do that. The book also lets my children know about our roots.”

He gave his parents a copy of Postcards from Branson, an emotional moment for everyone since by that time his father was in a skilled nursing home. His parents passed away a few years later. Proceeds from book sales go to Skaggs Regional Medical Center, Branson.

The Buffalo, Ben and Me
Todd framed this book around a twelve-day float trip on the Buffalo National River in Arkansas with his son Ben who was in the eighth grade and struggling with learning challenges.

“He was not performing at his potential and that made him resentful,” Todd says.

The wilderness adventure changed their lives and strengthened their love as Todd helped his son gain self-confidence and searched for his own identity as a father. They became more connected with every navigated rapid, every passage through massive limestone bluffs, every bass caught, and every glimpse of a deer, turkey, turtle and snake. There were lots of snakes.

Todd started writing about the trip as soon as they got home. “We both did a lot of growing and I wanted to make sure those memories didn’t slip away.”

Ben received professional counseling in high school that helped match his needs with learning resources. He went on to receive a master’s degree in biology with a focus on fisheries management. Today he works for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

More Books Coming?
Todd recently returned from an around-the-world trip for Drury University. He is organizing his notes into a spoof about the people he travelled with.

“I hope this will help us remember the trip in a fun way.”

Regardless of whether this becomes a book and whether there are future books, Todd plans to keep writing until things are so dim in his head he can’t think of any words.

Todd Parnell is an alumnus and adjunct professor of Drury University, Springfield, Missouri. He is a former bank president and a fifth generation banker. His interests include being a board member of the Missouri Clean Water Commission and a trustee of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photo courtesy Drury University.

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