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Francis Moul without a book is a rare sight
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Francis Moul without a book is a rare sight

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Francis Moul never goes anywhere without a book, not even to a movie.

"I never know when I might have a few minutes to read," Moul said.

If he should decide to stop for a cup of Earl Grey tea after the movie, he wants to have a book with him, which seems fitting for a man whose life has been shaped by words.

The journalist, publisher, author, bookstore owner and prolific book reviewer has kept constant companionship with books for more than 65 years. He recalls walking home from the Syracuse library with a children's book about a squirrel tucked under his arm.

"It was the first book I remember reading myself," Moul said. "I'm not sure why I checked out just that one book."

Moul grew up surrounded by stories. His father was a butcher who loved art and writing. His mother loved to read and would borrow paperbacks from the Catholic parish next door.

Growing up, he heard lots of stories of his own deep Nebraska roots -- he is proud to be a fifth generation Nebraskan on both sides -- but some very important chapters in his life were written in South Dakota.

His family moved to Vermillion, where Moul graduated from high school and earned a journalism scholarship to the University of South Dakota.

In 1961, he got a job at the Sioux City Journal, and that is where his life as a book reviewer began. The two sisters who owned the paper lived in an apartment above the offices, and one asked Moul to help with reviews. She would leave piles of books on the stairs for his consideration.

In the 50 years since, Moul estimates he has published more than 1,000 reviews in the Sioux City Journal, Des Moines Register, Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star.

Then there is the story of how Moul met his second wife. After marrying, living overseas and becoming a widower with a young child, he returned to Sioux City and found a new reporter sitting at his  desk. That reporter, Maxine Burnett, became his wife and later the lieutenant governor of Nebraska.

In the 1970s, the Mouls owned the Syracuse Journal Democrat and Maverick Media. They published penny press shoppers that covered communities from east of Marysville, Kan., to west of Kearney, as well as five weekly newspapers. The business grew from two employees to 120 with two printing plants.

In 1983, Moul decided to retire from publishing and opened Wordsmiths Books and Art, a shop he ran in Syracuse and later in Lincoln's Haymarket.

While his wife was Nebraska's lieutenant governor from 1991 to 1993, the second gentleman needed something to do and decided to pursue an interest he had had since the 1960s. He went back to the University of Nebraska to earn a Ph.D. in environmental history. Moul always has been drawn to the land and believes it has stories to tell.

"Environmental history is a fairly new concept," Moul said. "It is the study of the effect the land has on people and vice versa. I don't hunt or fish, but I've always had a desire to know about nature."

As an instructor in the 1960s, he had started the first environmental club at Wayne State College and helped organize the first Nebraska affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. His doctoral dissertation covered the history of the grasslands of Sioux County from 18 million years ago though the stories of ranch families in the 1990s.

With encouragement from his wife, Moul turned that dissertation into a book, "The National Grasslands," which was published in 2006.

Stories about the West, the environment and climate change continue to capture Moul's attention. He spent two weeks in Alberta researching the TransCanada Pipeline and is thinking about writing a book about the proposed project and the impact it could have on the Great Plains. Moul has another story of the Great Plains he is working on -- a novel set in the 1850s and '60s. "But this time," he said, "The Indians get to keep the land."

Even with all of his writing projects, Moul still spends several hours a day reading and usually is working through three or four books at a time. He often completes shorter books in a single day, such as best-selling thrillers by such authors as  Robert B. Parker, Stuart Woods, David Baldacci and John Sandford. Moul said he can appreciate almost any author who can develop great characters and tell a good story without a lot of philosophizing.

Always keeping a book close at hand sometimes can get heavy. Moul remembers packing a briefcase full of books for a trip to Cancun. He received a Kindle Fire for Christmas -- a gift that might allow him to travel a little lighter.

Cindy Conger is a freelance writer in Lincoln.

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