Collecting Stories, Sharing Experiences

By Elizabeth Barnhill

Dr. Barbara Russell Chesser gathers stories to share with readers

Dr. Barbara Russell Chesser has spent her career both collecting and sharing people’s stories.

After receiving her Ph.D. at Texas Women’s University, she taught marriage and family courses at TWU and later at the University of Arkansas while her husband, Del Chesser, studied for his Ph.D. in accounting.

During her time teaching at the University of Arkansas, she was asked to help with their international program where she researched African countries. Chesser’s role was primarily to edit and publish the findings of the researchers — work she found to be tremendously satisfying.

Barbara and Del moved around the country attending and teaching at universities. In 1982, Del accepted a job at Baylor University in the Accounting and Business Law Department, so they moved to Waco with their daughter, Christi.

Chesser took a break from teaching, but soon found a course at Baylor called Magazine Writing which sparked her interest.

“I was the only student of the course who got any articles published, two in Reader’s Digest,” Chesser recalled. “So, I was hired by Baylor to work in their development program, which I loved.”

After four years at Baylor, Chesser left to work for her friend, local entrepreneur Paul Meyer. She eventually became president of Meyer’s product developing company, Leadership Management International, where she used her experience with international studies.

“At that time materials in numerous languages were produced and printed in Waco,” Chesser explained. “Overseeing their production required some understanding of foreign languages. I was perfectly happy working for Baylor. However, when Paul told me about his desire to provide money and academic guidance for every high school student in Waco who needed financial assistance to attend college, my interest in working for him grew.”

Soon after, her half-sister was killed in a car accident. Reader’s Digest came calling again, asking her to write an article on her grief.

“One day I got a call from an editor at Word Publishing who had read the article,” she said. “He wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a book on grief. He said, ‘I’d really like to talk to you in person, but I don’t know how far you live from Waco, TX.’ I told him I was working a block away and I could walk down there in five minutes.”

Chesser published two books with Word Publishing. In her book “Because You Care: Practical Ideas for Helping Those Who Grieve”, she gathered grief-related stories from Wacoans, including Bob Johns, youth director at First Baptist Church, Woodway and the late Mike Toby, Senior Pastor of that same church. At that time, Word was a prominent publishing company, with books by Billy Graham, Max Lucado and Dale Evans Rogers.

Part of Chesser’s job with Paul Meyer was to collect stories and put a framework around them. She thought that Paul should write a book about all the success stories that were relayed to him.

Meyer said, “You get a contract, and we’ll do it.”

Chesser set up a meeting with publisher Mark Victor Hansen and proposed “Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul”.

Hansen loved it. The book became a best seller and was printed in eleven languages. Many Wacoans are featured in the book including Bernard Rappaport, who talked about his time tutoring children, and Evelyn and Nathan Hoffman, who discussed their experiences writing letters to each other.

Chesser said, “While doing the ‘Chicken Soup’ book, I found that I really enjoyed writing short stories about people’s lives and readers seemed to love them. That made them satisfying to write.”

Chesser also has two short story collections about Christmas, “Keeping Christmas: Stories to Warm Your Heart Throughout the Year” and “The Gifts of Christmas: A Treasury of True Stories”, the latter published in 2021.

Many of these stories are personal. Chesser was raised in Portales, New Mexico by her mother and grandmother as her father was killed when she was eight months old. She smiles when she reads from the short story “Warm Blankets”, which is about one of her favorite memories.

“Christmas more than 75 years ago is one of my favorite Christmas memories. I don’t recall what was inside the box that’s wrapped in glitzy paper and tied with beautiful ribbons. Rather, I remember being together, sharing, laughing and loving just as the old quilts kept us warm and snug.”

Chesser has written more than eight books and articles, but her favorite is “Remembering Mattie”, which won several awards. The book examines the life of her grandmother, who was born in the mid-1800s.

“Waco was the favorite place for my grandmother, Mattie, to visit,” Chesser said. “As a young girl she was with her family when they passed through Waco on their way to New Mexico during the late-1800s to claim land under the Homestead Act. Mattie’s eldest brother stayed in Waco and cherished Mattie’s visits over the years. By the time I moved to Waco in 1982 my grandmother was too frail to travel, but when I told her I was moving to Waco, she said, ‘I am so happy for you. I know Waco will take good care of you.’ And it has.”

At the age of 82, Chesser considers herself retired, but she still loves gathering stories. She has five or six ready to go should she decide to create another collection.