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VOL. 121 | NO. 111 | Friday, May 26, 2006

Former Presidential Diarist to Sign Books Today at Cotton Museum

AMY JOCIUS | Special to The Daily News

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"It is a love story. My parents were more than just sharecroppers and parents to a very poor, extremely large family. They were in love; they married against her parents' wishes because they believed God and fate had brought them together."
- Janis Kearney, On her book
Name: Janis Kearney
Position: Author of "Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir"
Basics: Kearney, who once served as the first personal presidential diarist in U.S. history, will sign copies of her first book today at noon at the Cotton Museum on Union Avenue.

The heat from the searing Arkansas summer sun likely is still hot on her skin.

The dry dusty soil in her nose and the feel of a chopping hoe in her hand are as real today as when Janis Kearney, 53, first stepped foot in her father's cotton field at the age of 7, she said.

Kearney's story begins in a small farmhouse in the Arkansas Delta that was filled with faith, a giant family and parents who were undereducated but encouraged each of their 19 children to dream far beyond those dusty fields.

"They absolutely performed miracles in raising all of us to dream and work, and never stop learning," Kearney said.

The encouragement and sacrifice is what Kearney says have made her the woman she has become - a woman whose abilities took her as far as the White House when she worked for President Bill Clinton. She had met him years earlier when he was a law professor at the University of Arkansas. It was a job that would prepare her to live out the dream of telling her family's story.

"I was a quiet, shy child ... until I began to write, and found that it was a perfect way to express my true feelings," she said.

Kearney recently put pen to paper, breathing new life into the vivid memories and impressions from her childhood with her first book, "Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir," which was published in 2004 by Writing Our World Press. She will sign copies of the book today at noon at the Cotton Museum, 65 Union Ave.

For Kearney, today's engagement is especially significant.

"The history of Memphis is tied so intricately with mine and my family's history, the history of African-Americans and Southerners trying to make something out of so little," she said.

Farmhouse to White House

Like many of her siblings, Kearney left the cotton fields near her home for a college education, graduating from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1976 with a degree in journalism.

While it might not have been commonplace for someone with Kearney's background to excel beyond secondary school, several of her siblings did just that, with 16 graduating from such colleges as Harvard, Stanford and Yale law schools, Brown University in Providence, R.I., and others. Kearney credits her parents' encouragement for such success.

"Education was on the same level as religion and hard work to my parents," she said. "They instilled in their children a love for learning that never leaves you."

After graduating from college, she went on to work for the state of Arkansas until 1987, when she bought the statewide weekly Arkansas State Press Newspaper from renowned civil rights activist Daisy Bates, finally joining Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign in 1992 and through his presidency from 1993 to 2001.

At that point, Kearney was able to write in a more in-depth way as the first presidential diarist in U.S. history, chronicling the day-to-day life of the nation's 42nd president.

"I had prepared for that position all my life, without knowing I had," she said. "This wasn't something I could have ever dreamed of, but it was no more than is possible if you prepare yourself for God's blessings."

The grace of God

Before and during her position at the White House, and in the years after, Kearney had been working on a story about her father, James.

"My father was an unbelievable story teller, and I fell in love with stories at his knee, listening to him weave tales that he shared with his children," Kearney said.

But as the ink continued to flow, the story began to change greatly from what she'd started with in the early 1970s. In recalling the life of the man Kearney adored and revered, "Cotton Field of Dreams" emerged as a tribute to her family and a rich Southern history. The book even contains a foreward written by Clinton.

"It's also about families and incredible parenting," she said. "It is a love story. My parents were more than just sharecroppers and parents to a very poor, extremely large family. They were in love; they married against her parents' wishes because they believed God and fate had brought them together.

"And, they weathered such amazing storms to stay together and raise their family."

Kearney said she hopes her story will shed light on a part of history that should never be forgotten.

"For those young people who can't imagine the years when separate and unequal education systems were the status quo, it's a wakeup call about what opportunities they have right in front of their noses, and sometimes don't take advantage of," she said.

Since 2001, Kearney has been working on her second book, "Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, from Hope to Harlem." It's due to hit stores July 30.

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