Rochester (New York), July 26: Seldom are the handwritten comments of a teacher so intriguing that students save their papers past graduation.
But even colleagues of David M. Northrup, a retired high school English teacher, told him they kept his communiques. Not because of what he wrote, but because of the way he wrote it: the shape and style of his penmanship.
Northrup has long attracted handwriting admirers here, especially those in need of elegant place cards or invitations, which he will do as a favour but not for pay. Now he has achieved international recognition: This month the World Handwriting Contest awarded him first place in the artistic-handwriting category for ages 20 to 64.
“Fame isn’t going to ruin me,” he promised. The contest is sponsored by Pen World International magazine, and winners in various categories divide about $1,500 worth of fountain pens.
Northrup, who is 57, wrote so illegibly as a graduate student in the 1970s that his mother told him to stop sending letters. “Even I couldn’t read what I’d written,” he said. “If I couldn’t pick up a clue in the first few letters, the whole thing would be lost to me.” So in the early 1970s he bought a fountain pen and began teaching himself to write in the Renaissance style of italic script. Grading homework and creating lesson plans offered him the opportunity for hours of practice each week.
Over the decades he found artistic fulfillment in the way he pressed the pen to paper. “It was like his personal discipline,” said Rodney J. Taylor, who taught in the same suburban Rochester district, Pittsford Central, and would watch Northrup work in the teachers’ office.
“His desk was always deliberately in the corner, and he would turn his back on the world, enter this Zen-like state and slowly do his penmanship.”
Northrup dabbled in painting, but came back to his fountain pens, which he carries in his shirt pocket. “I always had a drive to create something I thought was beautiful, something I wanted to make myself,” he said. “This is an art people don’t recognize.”
He improved so much that others could not help but feel humbled. “I’ll tell you, what’s embarrassing is when you have to sign something next to his,” said his wife, Janet Northrup. “He signed our mortgage and it was a conversation-stopper. Then everyone waited for me to sign my name and when I did, they said, ‘Oh’.”
Legibility, rhythm, consistency and style are the benchmarks for world-class handwriting, said Kate Gladstone, the contest director, who lives in Albany.
Though the competition is small — there were 76 entries this year — it has received submissions from Europe, Asia and New Zealand. Entry information is on Gladstone’s website: www.global2000.net/handwritingrepair/WHAC. Most entries come from the US, but the international submissions are generally of better quality, Gladstone said. “I think there’s more ambivalence here.”
Left-handers can do as well as the right-handers, she said. And despite predictions that the writing contest would fail for lack of interest, it has lasted 13 years. “I was told we would be lucky to get two entries, but we’ve never gotten that few, and the quality of the entries keeps getting better and better,” she said.