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If Riverworld, the planet that Philip José Farmer ’50 wrote about in his science fiction series of the same name, actually exists, Farmer is about to embark on an amazing adventure.
Farmer, a prolific writer and respected mentor to other writers, died Wednesday, February 25, at his home in Peoria. He was 91 years old.
His Riverworld series imagines a planet where everyone who has ever existed is simultaneously reincarnated along a single, million-mile river valley.
Undoubtedly, some of the seeds for the exotic garden of Farmer’s imagination were planted during his childhood in Peoria. His family moved here in 1923, when Farmer was five years old. Their first house had an outdoor toilet.
When he was six, he was playing outside one day and looked up to see a silver dirigible floating in the sky. He was fascinated by the sight, and lighter-than-air craft appear in many stories throughout his career. While living on Hanssler Place in central Peoria, young Farmer became a frequent patron of the cozy McClure Branch of the Peoria Public Library. Here he discovered the Oz books and began reading Greek mythology and boys’ adventure magazines. Later, he discovered the library’s collection of Tarzan books, which had an enormous impact on his future as a writer.
He attended Peoria High School, where he began developing ideas for stories and was an outstanding athlete. After graduation, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri, but had to drop out because of financial troubles. After a brief stint on a line crew for Illinois Power and Light, Farmer returned to school, this time as an English major at Bradley, which was then called Bradley Polytechnic Institute.
In 1941, he returned to the University of Missouri to study classical Greek, which wasn’t offered at Bradley. But he had fallen in love with his future wife, Elizabeth (Bette) Andre, a music scholarship student. Missing her terribly, he would hitchhike 300 miles to Peoria on the weekends to see her. They were married later that year.
Farmer took what he thought would be a temporary job at Keystone Steel & Wire Company. It lasted over 11 years. Meanwhile, he and Bette had two children, and Farmer began writing in earnest. His first story was published in Adventure in 1946.
Bette urged him to return to Bradley to finish his degree. After a twelve-year hiatus, Farmer took her advice and began honing his writing skills as an English major. He graduated in 1950.
During his long career, Farmer won the Hugo award, the highest honor for science fiction, three times. He wrote about 75 novels and numerous short stories. He is best known for his Riverworld and World of Tiers series of books. He was inducted into Bradley’s Centurion Society in 1994.