Author to talk about inspiration for book

PARIS – Mitzi Ring Probert of Steubenville will speak about the true story that inspired her children’s book, “Esther’s Miracle at the Manger” and how her and her family’s battles with cancer convinced her to pursue her dream of being published.

She will speak during a Coffee With the Author event at noon Wednesday at Paris Presbyterian Church’s the Gathering Place Coffee Shop located at 127 Steubenville Pike.

Probert, former Delaware Gazette society editor and reporter and Wheeling News-Register/Intelligencer reporter, covered a story of a cow who escaped from a live nativity scene in Toronto in December 1991. The cow, Esther, bolted up state Route 7 and swum the Ohio River, eventually making her way to a farm near Tomlinson Run State Park in New Manchester, where she was found 10 days after her escape.

“She was missing for a long time, but on Christmas eve, she was found,” said Probert. “Some say it was a Christmas miracle.”

Writing wasn’t Probert’s first career choice – she wanted to be a veterinarian, but she didn’t get along with math. Instead, she sought a double major in writing and zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University and intended to become a science writer.

“My adviser told me, ‘you only need two more classes for a journalism degree,'” she said. “So I decided to go for it.”

Shortly after graduation, Probert took a position with the Delaware Gazette as society editor, hoping also to be able to do science writing.

“I had bills to pay, and I loved the town, so I said OK,” she said.

However, Probert wasn’t able to fulfill her aspiration to become a science writer at the Gazette, and she decided to come back to the family farm outside of Uhrichsville. She was offered a job with the Intelligencer, where she had interned during her college days.

Esther’s journey was one of the last stories Probert covered before moving on to direct Love for Children of Jefferson County, a program serving needy families through World Vision.

“The pastor at church called me and told me they were just starting Love for Children of Jefferson County,” she said. “It was part-time, and I was expecting my first child, so I said yes.”

Probert never forgot about Esther’s escape and subsequent rescue, and, after the birth of her first child, Kyle, in 1995, she remembered Esther as she looked at children’s books.

“When you have your own child, you really start looking around at what books are out there,” she said. “What I was seeing didn’t really impress me that much.”

Probert wrote the first draft of what would become “Miracle at the Manger,” but was unable to find someone with the time to illustrate the book.

“The original manuscript doesn’t look anything like it,” she said. “I collected my rejection letters, and I almost gave up on it.”

This disappointment coincided with a difficult period for Probert’s family. Many of her aunts and uncles suffered from cancer, including the aunt for whom she was named, but her father died in 2002 from the disease, followed shortly after by his brother, Probert’s favorite uncle. In 2005, Probert herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, requiring a lumpectomy.

“I just remember waking up in recovery and thinking, ‘that wasn’t that bad, it doesn’t hurt,'” she said. “All these people were staring at me and they said, ‘we had a little complication.'”

A prior biopsy had damaged the pleural sac around Probert’s lungs, and, while closing up the incision, the surgeon noticed a “bubbling” in her chest that required immediate correction.

“My husband said the surgeon came down the hall and his face was white,” she said. “He said, ‘I thought you were dead.'”

Then Probert’s oldest brother, a firefighter in Bowerston, developed lung cancer at 59.

“He never even smoked,” she said.

Her brother died in 2006, and, the following year, her sister also developed breast cancer. After a full round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and a lumpectomy, her sister recovered, but, in December 2007, their mother’s sight began to fail.

“Within a few weeks, the other side started going, so we took her in for an MRI and found out it was a brain tumor,” she said.

Probert’s mother died in 2008.

Probert first was encouraged as a writer by her third-grade teacher, Constance Gala. Probert wrote an article, “Red Bird,” as part of a writing assignment.

Probert recalled that first assignment and her relationship with her parents when she entered an essay into an Easter contest with Christian publisher Xulon Press of Florida in April 2009. She wrote about a conversation she and her mother had about life and death shortly before her mother’s passing and titled it “The Cardinal’s Song.”

“When my mom passed away, it was part of my grieving process to go back to writing,” she said. “I wasn’t even trying to get published.”

After winning the contest, Probert inquired whether Xulon Press was publishing children’s books. The company wasn’t, and “Miracle at the Manger” went back on the shelf – until December 2009, when Xulon announced it would now publish children’s books.

Probert received a list of potential illustrators, and one name rang a bell – Ty Schafrath, a former Nickelodeon Animation Studios animator.

“I knew when I saw that name, I knew him, but I couldn’t quite figure out from where,” said Probert. “He had just finished up doing some work on ‘The Princess and The Frog’ movie. And he had done some ‘Dora the Explorer’ work. I figure I’d be too small time for him, anyway, even if I did know him.”

Probert’s and Schafrath’s paths had crossed more than once – when she attended Judson Hills Baptist Camp near Loudonville, Ohio, Schafrath’s family operated a canoe livery service which served the camp. But they also attended Ohio Wesleyan University at the same time. After the two reconnected, Probert was going through her college diary, when she found a reference to meeting a Ty Schafrath.

“He knew one of my roommates my freshman year,” she said.

Schafrath agreed to illustrate the book – basing a character on Probert’s late father – but the two were stumped by formatting issues until they received assistance from Sharon Bozek of Cortland Manor, N.Y., who agreed to help them format the book.

“When I called the woman he suggested, I told her that a lot of the reason I was wanting to publish the book was because of a promise I had made to myself after going through breast cancer, as well as a promise I made after losing both parents and a brother to cancer as well as having a sister treated for breast cancer,” said Probert. “I told her life is too short and we need to do what we love. Something that will not only make us happy, but touch the lives of someone else, somehow.”

Bozek confided that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She immediately started asking me questions about what I had faced with breast cancer,” said Probert. “I still keep in touch with her, checking to see how she is doing and she too has been there to encourage me. I know now that I have come full circle, and it is because of this book.”

For information on the Coffee With Author program, call (724) 729-3450.