Growing up in Michigan (1938-1955)
John Anthony Bellairs was born in Marshall, Michigan, on January 17, 1938. He was the oldest child of Frank, a World War I veteran; cigar-store owner; and one time-sheriff deputy, and Virginia (Monk) Bellairs. Two other children, brother Frank and sister Suzanne, followed. Growing up with an active imagination, John was intrigued by the historic houses and buildings he encountered while walking to and from school, visiting the library, spending time with family, and attending Mass at church. John would admit later to often escaping into fantasized adventures during his explorations around town. A voracious reader in his youth, by his teenage years John had made new friends by joining Boy Scout Troop 122 and by moving from parochial to public school, where he was active in journalism and the Latin and Chess clubs. In 1955, John graduated from Marshall High School and set his sights on studying pre-law at the University of Notre Dame.
Behold Notre Dame! (1955-59)
This story surely would have had a different ending had Bellairs's interest in pre-law continued. Perhaps it was the influence of legendary Notre Dame instructor Francis J. O'Malley that one must thank. O'Malley's classes were something of academic lore, revered by former students decades after they had moved beyond South Bend and able to stir a sense of understanding and appreciation for the written word. Many students enrolled in his classes - such as Bellairs in O'Malley's freshman level Rhetoric and Composition class - would share a certain bond that would remain throughout their four years of undergraduate study and the rest of their lives.
Bellairs's interest in English literature and writing blossomed. By his junior year (1957), he had become a member of the Bookmen, a long-running campus organization dedicated to literary study and critique. As a senior (1958), he joined the Bookmen, another organization, and was on the writing staff of the student magazine, the Scholastic. With the Scholastic came some of Bellairs's earliest published work: a bi-weekly column consisting of humorous stories, witty anecdotes, and interactions with the people and places that make up the Notre Dame campus.
It was also during Bellairs's senior year that the event that would make him a legend among his peers occurred. Five Notre Dame students, including Bellairs, took part in the nationally-televised College Quiz Bowl program where teams of university students competed against another in varying subjects. The most memorable moment of the March 8, 1959, match-up between Notre Dame and Georgetown University occurred when Bellairs startled the national viewing audience by quoting Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales - in perfect Middle English. Well, not all of it. Just the first eighteen lines or so.
Later that spring Bellairs departed Notre Dame with a B.A. in English and went off to pursue graduate studies in Chicago.
The Move to Minnesota (1963-65)
Bellairs left the comforts of the Windy City in 1963 for his first full-time teaching position in in Winona, Minnesota. There he taught English classes full-time at the now-defunct College of Saint Teresa. He wrote there, too, though his earliest examples were academic-driven examinations of poetry and prose. His creative writing, however, honed in on his experiences in the church and from the Catholic girl's school where he taught. Here Bellairs would commit to paper the adventures of a saint he first told friends about back in Chicago. The saint was known as Fidgeta and she would go on to become the launching pad in his career.
In between teaching, writing, and attending conferences, Bellairs found time to take up acting. Because Saint Teresa's was an all-female institution, faculty members often pitched in to complete casts in various stage productions. Over the course of two years, Bellairs found time to participate in four different roles.
Two years later Bellairs was ready to resume work on his doctoral studies, something small-town Minnesota was unable to provide. While his time there was short, he would later memorialize his time in Minnesota by setting The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, the first book in the Anthony Monday series, in the Mississippi River-town of Hoosac, a geographically-identical cousin to Winona.