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Christmas tree farmer's books challenge kids to 'find Jesus'

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Phil Gallery pulls a worn, brown briefcase out of his car. As he opens it, the scent of yellowed paper hits the air. Inside lie pages and pages of notes, sketches and early manuscripts of his many books.

When Gallery speaks to children about writing, he’s quick to mention the hard, messy work that goes into producing anything of value. Students are impressed by the glossy, colorful copies of his books, such as “Can You Find Jesus?” and “Can You Find the Saints?” But he hopes to impart that before there were illustrations and sentences, there were stick figures and simple phrases. 

“Nothing happens by itself, including your life,” said Gallery. “You have to write and paint your life.”

Gallery’s life started April 10, 1946, in Los Angeles. When his family moved into the Northern Virginia area, he attended seventh- and eighth-grade at St. Rita School in Alexandria. After graduating, he attended the Capitol Page School in Washington for three years, spending long hours serving on the Senate floor. “We had classes from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30, then we went to work. It was crazy, but I was surrounded by a lot of great men,” he said. 

He attended a public high school his senior year. “Often (as a page I would) get home at 8, go to bed at 10 or 11. I thought I was probably going to go to the Naval Academy (for college) so I said, I need a year (off).” 

Following in his father’s footsteps, Gallery did attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and graduated in 1968. He then sailed ships around the world as a surface warfare officer. “There were a few places I didn’t get to, but not many,” he said. “It was very physically and mentally demanding work.” His take home pay was 75 cents an hour. 

He married his wife, Shari, in 1981. She was the longtime best friend of his cousin whom he reconnected with at his cousin’s wedding. Gallery and his wife had two sons while living in Washington — Matthew in 1983 and Nathaniel in 1985 — but then decided they wanted to raise their family outside the city. So he bought property in Augusta, W.Va., built a house and opened a Christmas tree farm. Twin girls, Victoria and Emily, were born in 1988. 

“We figured Christmas trees were pretty recession-proof, and we wanted to give our kids something to do,” he said. “When they sat down at the dinner table, they could say, ‘I did something today for my family and myself.’ What a blessing for a child.” 

Gallery paid his children and many of the local teenagers to plant trees, cut them down, load them onto trucks and drive into Washington to sell them. At its peak, his farm had 10,000 Christmas trees, said Gallery. 

Though he always was interested in reading and writing, the idea to write a search and find book started with his children. “My kids were fascinated by ‘Where’s Waldo?’ books,” he said. Gallery wondered what it might be like to have kids searching for something a little more profound than a boy in a striped red shirt. So he found an illustrator, Janet L. Harlow, and got to work. 

Beginning in 1996, their collaboration led to four books — “Can You Find Jesus?,” “Can You Find Bible Heroes?,” “Can You Find the Saints?” and “Can You Find Followers of Jesus?” Readers search for items such as a dove, a lamb or palm branches throughout illustrations brimming with busy cartoon people. A child in a striped shirt makes a repeated appearance, too. “Jesus wasn’t someone just for the people of his day but is living today in all of us,” the book explains. 

An opening page has a spot for children to sign their names below the sentence, “I can find Jesus in this book. I will keep looking for him in my life.” 

Their four books each won the Catholic Press Association’s award for best children’s book the year they were published. His fifth and newest book, “St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story,” illustrated by Sibyl Mackenzie, isn’t a seek and find. The intended audience is a little younger, so he decided to tell the story in a different way. “One day it just dawned on me — kids like animals. Why don’t I have a bird tell the story of Francis? So I did,” he said.

Gallery returned to his middle school, St. Rita, to share his work with the students and later with families at the May 18 parish festival. From past experience, he knows kids enjoy the books. Amidst the entertaining challenge of discovering the hidden objects are lessons about the faith. In presentations of his books, Gallery tucks in a lesson about the importance of hard work in an instant gratification world. 

“This is the process of creating art, or living life, of accomplishing anything,” said Gallery. “You begin with something little and simple, and you end up with an amazing piece of art.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019