A deeply religious Arlington Heights housewife with five kids, Joan Wester Anderson hung a clothesline in the Kroch's & Brentano's bookstore at Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect in 1976 to promote her book, "Love, Lollipops and Laundry."
Even with the decorations and a Mother's Day hook, the book, written with fellow mom Ann Toland Serb, sold mostly to friends and family. Anderson's $300 share did pay for a new washing machine, and was an upgrade from the 25 bucks she made selling her first story in 1973 to a diaper magazine.
"I had written seven previous books, and none of the books did well. In case God might have missed the point, I was doing this for a second income," Anderson remembers thinking right before her life changed forever in 1992.
That's the year Anderson, inspired by her son's tale of how he was rescued by a tow-truck driver who left without a trace on a snowy and frigid night before Christmas, wrote "Where Angels Walk: True Stories of Heavenly Visitors," a collection of stories from people who said heavenly angels miraculously saved them from tough situations.
"Angels don't get much attention today," Anderson wrote in the first chapter.
Her book tapped into something far bigger than she could even dream. "Where Angels Walk" was on The New York Times best-sellers list for 55 weeks, sold more than 2 million copies and was translated into 17 languages. Angels became a cottage industry. A TV show called "Touched by an Angel" debuted in 1994. Retail shops selling angel-related items began popping up around the nation.
Anderson spoke about angels before local religious groups and gave interviews on Christian radio stations. Soon she was the "angel lady" spokeswoman. She appeared on Chicago's public television's "Bertice Berry Show," "The Joan Rivers Show," "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show," "The Jerry Springer Show," "Good Morning America" and even "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Springer had a volatile assortment of guests, and wanted Anderson to argue with nonbelievers. "I don't debate angels. They are or they aren't," she told the host, who responded by noting a heated TV battle might sell books.
"I know, but what kind of price am I going to pay?" responded Anderson, who sat in silence for the second half of the show.
She also asked to take her book tour to smaller towns. "I have never met anyone who wanted to go to Omaha," the president of one public relations firm told her.
When Anderson asked Oprah before the show what she shouldn't talk about, Oprah told her not to spend her time trying to hawk her book, Anderson says. Talking about angels, people and their stories came naturally to Anderson, who was a big fan of the humorist Erma Bombeck.
"People wanted to be included in what I later discovered was a really important movement around the country," says Anderson, now 78 and living in a senior community in Wheeling with her husband, Bill. She spoke to congressional spouses at the White House. She did an interview with Tom Brokaw, which played on an airlines' in-flight TV.
To commemorate Anderson's first angel book, Loyola Press recently published a 25th Anniversary Edition with new stories and an epilogue from Anderson.
"It's my 25 years with angels," Anderson says in her room filled with angel figurines, posters and copies of her eight books about angels. "What shocked me was that it wasn't a one-time thing. It didn't end. Twenty-five years is a long time for a book. It gives you an idea that dreams can come true. Now I'm going through things, tossing out things. It's hard to let go."
Parents of Chris, Tim, Billy, Brian and Nancy, the Andersons now have five grandchildren. The author copes with Parkinson's disease, which she says makes her slower and affects her memory.
"I'll never forget that," she says, beginning to tell a funny story about something during her book tour across 45 states, before pausing and noting with a laugh, "which I guess I just did." She says she feels called to share her medical condition because "there's somebody out there who needs to know there is so much medication out there," she says.
The outpouring of gratitude from fans of her books brings her comfort.
"Every once in a while, when I was having a bad day, I'd reach in and grab one of those letters. Everything is 'Thank you, Thank you,' and I feel it should be me saying thank you because it changed my life," Anderson says of the angel stories. "If you ever get to the point where one of these is ho-hum, shame on you. They don't just happen. There's a reason for it."
Not that she understands that reason.
"I haven't discovered the whole meaning of life except that God made a beautiful world and wants us to share it," Anderson says. "Human nature is human nature and it will move as it will. We're just along for the ride. But everybody has something special they have to do. We all end up being answers to other people's prayers."