By Ginny Masullo
“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Lyell Thompson, especially when he dons his white suit and black string tie, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark Twain. Thompson, who will be “channeling” Mark Twain this Tuesday as the Ozark Poets and Writer’s featured reader, believes as Twain did that “one should not let truth get in the way of a good story.”
A born storyteller, Thompson, shares other similarities to Twain, who he considers to be one of three greatest storytellers in America, equal with Will Rogers and the contemporary Garrison Keillor.
Moving to Fayetteville in the late 1950s as a professor of agronomy, Thompson plunged into the local civil rights movement. He, along with people like Minerva Carol, worked to and succeeded in integrating the Fayetteville city pool, the local theater and numerous restaurants.
Like Twain, Thompson is a keen observer of his natural and social environment. Over the past 50 years he has documented his observations through letters to the editor. As a member of the Washington County Quorum Court for 18 years, Thompson studied and acted on behalf of his beloved county.
As a result of his service as justice of the peace on the court, he continues with honorary status to officiate at weddings. Known for waxing poetic about the beauties of marriage at these ceremonies, Thompson speaks fondly of his own wife of 60 years.
“My grades went up when I moved my seat next to hers in school. She is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Thompson admired the work of Hal Holbrook’s interpretations of Mark Twain. In 1970, Thompson performed his own rendition of Twain on Fayetteville’s Open Channel. From there he took his “Twain show” to Texas, to classrooms in Wisconsin, to a WW II Army reunion and to classes here at the University of Arkansas. Over the past 40 years, he has averaged about one Mark Twain presentation a year.
As Mark Twain (or was it Samuel Clemens?) said, “You will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the things that you did do.” So throw off your bowlines and come to Hammontree’s inside Nightbird Books on Dickson Street at 7 p.m. Tuesday to see an embodiment of the teller of tall tales. Mark Twain will be preceded and followed by an open mike. Each open miker has a 4-minute time limit.