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Quiet and Unassuming, Branson Maestro of Cursive Script Shares His Backstory

Jack Pell learned to write cursive from his father, a coal miner, as a child at the breakfast table.
Calligraphy
Jack Pell can write in various cursive styles, from simple cursive to elaborate script with loops and swirls. (Photo credit: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU)

It’s been said that we all have talents and skills that are unique to us.  One man in Branson has not only a unique skill set – but a remarkable backstory to go along with it. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson sat down with him and brings us this story.

[Sound:  pen writing on paper]

That’s the sound of Jack Pell’s pen turning a white piece of paper into a work of art.

I first met Pell just over a year ago, when I was a bride-to-be, feverishly creating my own wedding invitations.  When I began addressing the envelopes, my best handwriting wasn’t even close to what I wanted. So, I went to National Art Shop in Springfield to ask if they could recommend a calligrapher. The attendant dug out a writing sample that looked like it was penned by John Hancock or George Washington.

“The man who writes like this lives in Branson,” the shopkeeper told me. “And here’s his number.”

I called, and a man told me to meet him in the parking lot at Target in Branson.

When I got there, I found an older man in a simple, red truck with fishing poles in the back. He was very quiet and appeared unusually humble. I admit; I was skeptical. But he took my envelopes, and in a couple of hours, was back with every one of them address in the most elegant, elaborate, and detailed cursive I had ever seen.

I had to ask: “Where in the world did you learn to write like this?”  And Jack Pell took me back to his childhood, where he and his dad—a coal miner with just an eighth-grade education—sat in a coal-fired kitchen without running water.

“My dad and I would sit around the table for breakfast, and we always had a morning newspaper.  And my Dad always had a pen,” Pell said.

“There was a bank there that always gave pens away. And you didn’t usually have ball-point pens. And Dad had one, and he loved to write on newspaper paper—it’s a different type of paper with a ball-point pen.  And I finagled around and I got him to get me a pen from the bank,” Pell said.

There he sat, Pell said, with his dad reading the paper, his coffee beside him in a saucer because “it cooled faster.”

 His dad would write the newspaper captions in beautiful cursive, then slide the paper over to his son without saying a word.  Pell says he felt his dad was looking for a compliment.

“And so, I started writing something just right back to him. And I would slide it across. And he got all fancy and crazy, so I started getting fancy and crazy, too,” Pell recalls.

This quiet competition went on for years. In school, teachers marveled at Pell’s writing—one was convinced he had talked a girl into writing an essay for him since boys “weren’t supposed to write like that.”  He loved to write. It made him happy, and he would write for hours sometimes, just practicing.

But one day, working in the coal mine, Pell’s dad severely injured his writing hand.  The operator running the cars through the West Virginia mine made an error.

“The guy was supposed to stop the motor. [Dad] reached down to connect the motor to the cars. And he backed the motor up and clipped his thumb. He thought he just mashed it. But he pulled his glove off, and his thumb fell on the ground,” Pell said.

But his dad found a way to write without a thumb. Even after that injury, Pell never did reach his dad’s level of penmanship, he says.

Pell builds his father up in his stories—he was brilliant, hardworking, talented. But Pell acknowledges that the same man also criticized and belittled him often. Pell, the youngest of 11 children, could never quite do enough to please his father.  He knows that contributed to the low self-esteem that weighs heavy on his shoulders yet today.

“And really, sometimes I’m more disappointed in my writing than anyone. I sit down to these samples here—and they disappoint me, because I don’t have them just exactly the way I want them,” Pell said.

As an adult, Pell moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the FBI sorting files. Someone in the bureau spotted his handwriting and linked him to the calligraphy department in the White House, where he was offered a job writing invitations and correspondence for the president. But he turned it down, because he felt he wasn’t good enough to work in the White House.  

A jewelry manager on the East Coast saw him sampling pens and offered him a full-time job addressing high-end wedding invitations. That, too, he declined.

So, instead of pursuing his passion, he spent his career in a bank, where the occasional customer or bank manager would marvel at his writing. But he never saw the beauty in his writing that others did. Occasionally, he says, he’ll look beyond the negative thoughts about himself and try to put his talents to use full-time.   

“I went in a store not too far from here one day – it was a jewelry store. I asked the man, ‘You sell wedding rings. Do you every have people ask about wedding invitations?’ He said, ‘Why?’  And I said, ‘Well, I thought I might ask you about writing them for you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, there’s people out there who can write who do that.’ So, I just turned and walked out the door,” Pell said.

He says when he writes in cursive script, he thinks about his late father.

“Those days we sat there at that table…I didn’t think much about it then.  But now, I look at it, and it was a true, real blessing. It’s fascinating,” Pell said.

Today, Pell is retired and lives in an apartment in downtown Branson. He makes wood signs as a hobby. He’s dreamed about opening up his own sign-making shop—he has all the equipment, he says—but he’s just not sure whether he can take that next step.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.