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Children's book memorializes woman's late son

Chip Ellis
Retired teacher Karen Teel has written a children's book using some of the sketches and rhymes of her late son, Sam Harshbarger.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They say, "Do what you love and the money will follow."

Karen Teel isn't looking to get wealthy. The retired Kanawha County schoolteacher doesn't care if the money comes or it doesn't, but what she's done is all about the love of her late son, Samuel Harshbarger.

Karen's first children's book, "Robot Rhymes," was recently published by Headline Books in Terra Alta.

The book is based around the sketches and rhymes of her late son, Sam. Many people in Charleston and Morgantown remember Sam as the popular hillbilly hip-hop rapper Meuwl.

In November 2009, the 29-year-old died of a drug overdose.

"There's a stigma to that," Karen said. "It's like when someone dies of cancer. Someone always asks if they smoked, and if they did, well, they deserved it, right?"

Four years later, Karen still tears up when she talks about her son's death. She shakes a little and apologizes. She not sure she'll ever get over it, but she wants her son's legacy to be more than another cautionary tale with a tragic ending.

"Robot Rhymes" is her way of working past the grief and pulling from the whimsical, positive, larger-than-life character that was her son.

"He was always very creative," Karen said. "He was very funny, a very loving person. He was a taker, but he was always very giving."

"It's a beautiful day on robot ranch ..."

Sam grew up in South Charleston, the middle child of three. Karen said he was a writer and artist almost from the time he was old enough to put pick up a pen or pencil. He wrote little stories in elementary school and drew cartoons.

The rhymes came when he was in junior high, and Karen said he filled notebooks and scribbled on whatever stray paper he could get his hands on.

"After he died, we found so much material," she said.

Sam discovered hip-hop music in high school, which eventually became a good lyrical fit to the rhymes he wrote. The music grew into a passion and followed him when he went to school at the University of Pittsburgh.

"He had a full ride," Karen said, proudly. "He was just so bright."

Everything was fine at first. He had a couple of good years, but by 2001, Sam was losing interest in school. He was performing some in local clubs, but had also begun dabbling in hard drugs and graffiti.

In his third year at Pitt, he dropped out of school and returned home.

Karen said Sam knocked around at one job or another for a while without really finding anything permanent. He started rapping locally as Meuwl, but he also got into trouble for the graffiti, which was extensive.

"I had to go to court with him just once, and it was over the graffiti," she said. "I told him never again."

Sam's graffiti has largely disappeared since, though it still crops up here and there. Karen said she couldn't help but smile when she saw her son's graffiti tag, "Psst," on a passing coal car not long ago.

"There's still a little bit of him out there," she said.

With encouragement, Sam decided to go back to school.

"My husband and I went to three or four of his shows," she said. "I don't think we ever saw him as a musician.

"We didn't not support him, but I think we wanted Sam to find a line of work where he'd feel fulfilled."

He enrolled in WVU's school of journalism and made the dean's list in 2004 and 2005, but his interest in journalism waned. He was more interested in the college radio station and his own rhymes.

Sam played at Morgantown open-mic nights and worked his way up into hosting one at the popular 123 Pleasant Street, but while he had carved out a nice niche as a rapper, he wasn't doing much with his studies.

In 2005, he returned home, where he worked various jobs and muscled his way onto the Charleston music scene -- no easy feat for a hip-hop performer. Along with Bryan "B. Rude" Rude in The Rabble Rousers, Sam became a local club regular. He frequently played the Empty Glass and the Blue Parrot and also shows in Huntington, Morgantown and Pittsburgh. He recorded several albums and seemed to be steadily building a credible music career when he died.

"Life seems sorta like a tease, snuggie ..."

Sam's death shocked the local music community; more than 600 people attended his funeral.

To help themselves grieve, Sam's family released a collection of his songs on a special CD.

"Hearing his voice again was cathartic for me," Karen said.

She'd also come to appreciate her son's music better, but the often vulgar lyrics didn't make it entirely accessible. She also felt his music created an incomplete picture of Sam.

"Sam and I had talked about writing a children's book," Karen said. "I'd hoped it might lead to him producing poetry books. It was really startling to me how beautiful some of his lines were."

She started putting together a book based around some of Sam's lines and a few of his robot drawings. Then, in 2012, at the West Virginia Book Festival, she met Ashley Teets of Headline Books, a small book publisher in Terra Alta. Teets invited Karen to send her what she had and said she'd take a look at it.

"Robot Rhymes" impressed her. The publisher emailed her back and said, "This is a book."

"Awesome is as awesome does ..."

Karen said "Robot Rhymes" has done really well so far.

"It's been selling," she said. "And I've got some good press. 'Robot Rhymes' was given the Mom's Choice Award Silver Medal for children's books from ages 9 to 12. I'm hoping to get it in Tamarack, and, past that, I don't know."

Karen said she has no idea if she'll actually make any money from it, but earning a fortune was never really the intention. It's about remembering Sam and passing along the brighter parts of his life: his warmth, humor and creativity.

"My oldest son has two children," she said. "They were really too young to remember a lot about Sam, and this book is a way for me to approach Sam in a positive way."

In the meantime, Karen said she's written a follow-up, but doesn't know if she'll try to get it published or not.

"It's really not about the money," she said. "Sam was just very special."

"Robot Rhymes" is published by Headline Books and is available at Taylor Books, WV Marketplace at Capitol Market and online at Amazon.com. It's also available through the Magic Bloc online library for children.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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