Fifteen years ago, famous actor Richard Thomas walked into a Boston gift shop co-owned and managed by 1971 Monmouth College graduate Mark Duffield.
Rather than ask the actor who portrayed John-Boy on the TV show The Waltons for his autograph, Duffield instead described a project he was planning to Thomas, who helped him add a vital piece to the elaborate puzzle.
That piece became the book The Last Shepard and Tales of the Tenth Ornament: A Wee Yarn of Wonder at Christmastime.
And the project became so much more.
It all started at Monmouth
“My inspiration to write anything can be traced back to Monmouth College in the late 1960s,” said Duffield. “I wrote a story I called The Chameleon, and English professor Murray Moulding praised my work and urged me to continue writing.”
So is that what Duffield did?
“I did not. I became a commercial fisherman on Nantucket Island after graduation. I traveled the world, visiting 65 countries.”
Some of his adventures included living with tribes in Africa, crossing the Sudan in a truck and traveling down the Amazon River in a small boat. He then became director of business development at Boston public TV station WGBH, funding programs like Nova, Frontline and The American Experience.
Three chance meetings
In 2006, Duffield became co-owner of Blackstone’s, a small gift shop on historic Charles Street.
Duffield began thinking of ways to increase the shop’s business. After a chance meeting with Toronto-based ornament maker Mario Friedrich, he had an idea. He asked Friedrich to create a series of 10 Boston-themed Christmas ornaments which, when collected in full, would provide enough clues to solve a riddle. Those solving the riddle would be entered into a drawing to win $2,000 in donated gold and silver coins.
Duffield then took the riddle further, proposing to a local bank manager that the riddle and coins be kept in a bank vault and dramatically opened five years later at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.
Similar to Scrooge meeting the three ghosts of Christmas, Duffield then had his second chance meeting, this time with Thomas. The actor gave Duffield the idea to write a story that accompanied the ornament project, with a separate riddle and with cliffhangers that would keep families returning to the story each Christmas Eve to learn what happened next. Those families had signed on to participate in the Blackstone’s Christmas Mystery Ornament program.
“We turned strangers into friends and friends into meaningful relationships that last to this day,” said Duffield, whose third chance meeting, with cartoonist Don Sherwood – famous for his work on The Flintstones – gave him his book’s illustrator.
Starting with Christmas in 2007, the families for the next five years received their two ornaments and a photocopied chapter of the wonderfully illustrated story.
“Early on, when I was full of doubt and facing the enormous task of producing a five-year, multi-dimensional, multi-platform project of ornaments, writing a book, illustrating a book, finding ways to finance it, raise $2,000 in prize money, and having to organize, promote, sell and direct it all – and all during a recession – I must admit that I really thought I had taken on more than I was capable of doing,” said Duffield.
Helping the cause were numerous small gifts from the neighborhood that Duffield received toward self-publishing the book, with the largest financial contribution coming from his old sea captain. The book’s title, with its “non-shepherd” spelling, comes from a young customer named Kristin Shepard, who regularly visited Duffield’s shop to check on the project’s progress.
Bringing it all together
Duffield also began to receive heartfelt feedback on how readers related to his story’s themes of “the battle between faith and doubt, how character defines us and how, despite troubles, struggles and challenges, the importance of any single life matters in the long run.”
“It’s a holiday tale that gives us continued faith that the mystery of Christmas lives in our hearts, and reassurance that mankind might be better than we had otherwise dared to hope,” wrote one reviewer.
Many readers from across the U.S. traveled east in 2011 for the “big reveal,” which was held at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, which offered discounted rates to the families. Anonymous donations made possible a turkey dinner for 300 with all the trimmings.
“None of the families knew each other,” said Duffield. “They were joined only by the concept of The Last Shepard and the sharing of a unique way to spend Christmas away from home. Amazing.”
Duffield called the day of Dec. 24, 2011, “one for the ages.” The Rockettes provided free tickets for the families to attend a show, vendors made various donations, including goody bags for the out-of-state visitors, and a special-order Christmas tree was delivered.
“What an evening, what a journey, what an odyssey over a five-year period that ended with such a glorious and joyful event,” said Duffield. “With help and inspiration from many, this community effort went on to raise thousands of dollars for childhood cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.”
Recently, Duffield authored another book, As I Recall: Wings of Remembrance, which as a new release debuted number one as a book on fatherhood on Amazon.com. It is the middle book of three of Duffield’s As I Recall titles, which he drew from the title of his father’s memoir. The third book is due out this spring.
Taking it to the screen
Does it all sound like a Hallmark movie? It very well could be.
It’s Duffield’s dream to take The Last Shepard to that level – “a production that will stand the test of time and become an annual viewing tradition similar to It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Just as that movie’s George Bailey had his guardian angel, Duffield is hoping for an angel investor or two to make his dream a reality.
“All of us hope that your wish to see The Last Shepard make it to the screen (will be realized),” wrote one of Duffield’s readers. “You never know what will happen when one person makes a snowball and decides to roll it down a hill.”
***Courtesy of Barry McNamara, Monmouth College***