Kelly: Lifelong friends wrote kids book in 1950s; now, at 90, they're published authors - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:55 am
Kelly: Lifelong friends wrote kids book in 1950s; now, at 90, they're published authors

Long ago, when kids chose up sides and played ball in the street, a couple of Omaha second-­graders became friends.

Unfortunately, one game near 23rd and Sahler Streets ended when a ball rolled into a sewer. Bill Shook had hit it for a homer, but Byron Oberst, who owned the ball, wasn't cheering.

Through the years, he often teased Bill about that walk-off home run: “Where's my baseball?”

Through World War II service and beyond, they remained lifelong friends. Who knew that the childhood pals would publish a children's book — at age 90?

What's more remarkable is that the book has been a very long time coming. Dr. Oberst, a retired pediatrician, and Shook, a retired commercial artist, first collaborated on “Brownie Bill and the Health Pirates” in the 1950s.

A New York agent showed interest, but the book never saw the light of day — other than when read to the two men's children in Omaha. Eventually, the original was put on a shelf and mostly forgotten, like that long-lost baseball.

Now the old friends are widowers. Mary Oberst died in 2011, and Helene “Sam” Shook in 2012.

While looking for something last year in his art room, Shook came across the original copy of the book — it had slipped between a shelf and a file cabinet — and showed it to his friend, “Obie.”

“We figured, well, here it is, so why don't we publish it?” Oberst said. “We had put a lot of time and effort into it and wanted to see it in print. We didn't care if we made any money off of it.”

Today, almost anyone can self-publish. It cost about $2,000 to make “Brownie Bill” available through Trafford Publishing.

The 44-page illustrated book about the body's defense mechanisms, aimed at children 2 to 7, tells the story of a boy named Bobbie. He wakes up with a sore throat and fever, and his mother takes him to Dr. Getwell. Brownie Bill helps Bobbie learn to fight off germs brought in by Black Bart, the leader of the germ pirates.

The book can be purchased at Barnes & Noble ($21) and at amazon.com, or downloaded ($4) at trafford.com.

The only change Oberst made from the original book is that Dr. Getwell now prescribes oral medication rather than administers a shot of penicillin.

While it's remarkable that a friendship in its ninth decade resulted in a children's book, so are the men's life stories.

As they grew up in north Omaha, Bill took a liking to illustrating and Obie to the wonders of the human body. They graduated from North High before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and both served in World War II.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Shook became a Navy fighter pilot, serving stateside, and Oberst was a stateside medical officer who then went overseas for the postwar occupation of Japan.

Both married, embarked on successful careers and had children. (One of the doctor's grandchildren is nationally known singer-songwriter Conor Oberst.)

Shook owned a sign company, with clients such as Union Pacific and the Lozier Corp. He was also the artist for the iconic three-dimensional murals at the long-popular Mister C's restaurant, which closed in 2007. The preserved murals can be seen at the Durham Museum in the old Union Station.

Oberst practiced pediatric medicine for 37 years. The American Academy of Pediatrics presents a national award in his name.

He is publishing another book, “Miracles and Other Unusual Medical Experiences.”

The book includes two cures that he says are medically unexplainable. One was a young patient during the early 1950s polio epidemic, and the other was an infant in the 1970s who weighed 18 ounces at birth. Both had suffered from severe complications.

“You can't be in pediatrics,” Oberst said, “without realizing there is a greater hand than you.”

For two kids who played ball in the street and have maintained a lifetime friendship, humor has often been the best medicine — or the best way to illustrate a point.

In 2006, when Oberst was inducted as a North High “Viking of Distinction,” Bill told attendees the story of the lost baseball that his friend Obie never let him live it down.

Bill pulled out “the scrubbiest, dirtiest baseball I could find” and handed it to his buddy.

Quipped Bill: “Now would you please get off my back?”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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