Donald Fletcher ’39 *51’s retirement 20 years ago marked the beginning of his new career as a writer.
Ricardo Barros
The Eternal Optimist

For most of us, retirement is a much-earned respite: a time to play golf, read novels, or travel. But for Donald R. Fletcher ’39 *51, his retirement nearly 20 years ago was the beginning of a new career as a writer. In September, at the age of 97, he published his sixth book in 15 years, By Scalpel and Cross: A Missionary Doctor in Old Korea (Resource Publications). His other books include an anthology of poetry, Turnings: Lyric Poems Along a Road (Outskirts Press, 2009), and I, Lukas, Wrote the Book, a self-published novel that reimagines of the writing of the Gospel of Luke.

Fletcher, a Presbyterian minister who holds an A.B. and a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, attributes his long and productive careers as a church official, educator, and now writer to his perennially optimistic outlook, which has sustained him throughout life.

You’ve done a great deal since your retirement.

I had the experience of retiring twice. I first worked in South America and the Caribbean for the Presbyterian Church. And after that I turned to teaching. I retired from that at 67 and wanted to turn to some writing projects but then got an invitation to work as an ecumenical pastor. So I didn’t retire again until 80. At that point I had bladder cancer and had to have radical reconstructive surgery, and I thought, if I’m able to make it through this, I’m going to write.

What is your new book about, and what inspired you to write it?

The book is primarily about my father and his career as a missionary-doctor in Korea in the first half of the 20th century. I began to write the book almost 60 years ago, but at the time I was working for the Presbyterian Church in Mexico City and traveling a great deal, so it got pushed aside. My daughter, Sylvia Fletcher *75, came across the material just two or three years ago, and that’s when I began working on it again. My parents have been quite a while gone, and I wanted to make them come alive for the reader.

You’ve written movingly about your wife’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Was it helpful to write about that experience?

It was a 15-year struggle. But even in the worst moments, we tried to keep positive. How much she was aware of her illness I do not know. We never talked about it. I did not want her to think that I was taking note of what she could and couldn’t do. Writing about it in an essay for the Princeton Alumni Weekly and then later in my book, Martha and I: Love, Life, and Loss in Alzheimer’s Shadow (Tate Publishing) was certainly therapeutic for me, and I also wanted to share our experience because today so many families are coping with this problem.

What motivates you?

I am happiest when I’m producing something, and retirement has allowed me to be productive in a new way. There’s a freedom in retirement. One has the opportunity to focus one’s mind and one’s efforts without having so many day-to-day obligations. There are enormous benefits to staying engaged. It’s important for me to always have something more that I want to accomplish. An essentially hopeful view toward life is so important. 

Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11