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Springdale Morning News Obituary for Jim Whitehead


photo by Chris Boese, Copyright 1990-2005

This is the longest obituary I've seen so far. cb

The Morning News :: News

James Whitehead, UA Professor and Writer, Dies at 67 Sun, Aug 17, 2003

By Johnathon Williams

FAYETTEVILLE -- James Tillotson Whitehead, a professor of English who helped build the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas into one of the finest in the nation, has died. He was 67.

He was taken to Washington Regional Medical Center on Friday, where he died. Doctors determined he had suffered a rupture of an aortic aneurysm. A visitation and memorial service are planned for this week.

A barrel-chested horse of a man, Whitehead was a tall slender professor when he came to Fayetteville in 1965 to join with Miller Williams and Bill Harrison in establishing a creative writing program at the university. He spent 35 years in the program as a teacher, administrator and writer, until his retirement in 1999.

During that time, he saw the program grow to national prominence and develop a reputation as one of the most competitive and productive workshops for young writers. His students today are novelists, poets and teachers of writing at universities across the country.

Friends and colleagues contacted Saturday afternoon remembered Whitehead as a large, shambling man with voracious intelligence and pugnacious humor.

"Big Jim," as he was called by friends, was an intense, animated talker who could weave poetry, theology and the Razorbacks into a single conversation, according to family members.

Miller Williams, a friend of Whitehead and another founder of the creative writing program, said Whitehead was clear and persuasive in the classroom. It wasn't enough that his students understood what he was saying, Williams said. They also had to understand where he was going.

Most of all, Williams said, he remembers Whitehead's sense of humor.

"The mood in a room could never stay very heavy for long with Jim there. He always found something amusing and ironic about most any human situation that made it easier to deal with," he said.

"If I had died first he would have found something amusing to say about it, and that delights me."

Collis Geren, dean of the Graduate School at the university, said Whitehead built the creative writing program into what is probably the highest-ranked graduate program at the university. Its students finish their studies on time and find work as writers, he said.

Although he retired from teaching in 1999, he continued to assist Writers in the Schools, a program that lends graduate students from the writing program to serve as teachers in public schools throughout Arkansas.

Whitehead won several awards and honors for both his teaching and his writing.

In 1976, the UA Alumni Association presented him a Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award for teaching. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his fiction and a Robert Frost Fellowship for his poetry.

His published collections of poetry include "Domains," "Local Men" and "Actual Size." He published a single novel during his career, "Joiner," which was named a Noteworthy Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1971.

Whitehead gave the Presentation Poem for President Jimmy Carter on Carter's return to Plains, Ga., in 1981, and he later edited President Carter's book of poems.

At the time of his death, Whitehead was completing a screenplay.

He was born on March 15, 1936, in St. Louis to Dick Bruun Whitehead and Ruth Ann Tillotson. He grew up in Mississippi and used a football scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University, from which he graduated with a bachelor's in philosphy and a master's in English.

He later earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. While at Iowa, he told a panel discussion in 1984, he took to copying long-hand the short stories of Eudora Welty "because I thought they were the best things I could find. I don't think I imitate her, and I know I'm not getting close to being anything like as good, but I studied them that way."

His Southerness as a writer made it easy to write about the South, but it took awhile for him to find his local voice: "I lived in Fayetteville 10 years before I realized I could write about it. I was walking home one day and I said, 'By God, I know this town,'" he said.

Whitehead is survived by his wife, Gen; seven children and their spouses: Bruun Whitehead and Kim Willis of Annandale, Va.; Dr. Kathleen W. Paulson and George P. Paulson, of Fayetteville; Eric T. and Jennifer Whitehead of Overland Park, Kan.; and Joan and John Threet, Ted and Kelley Whitehead, Ruth and Kevin Trainor, and Philip and Kamron Whitehead, all of Fayetteville; 10 grandchildren; a brother, Jared Whitehead of Marietta, Ga.; and an aunt, Jean Davis of Wauwatosa, Wis.

Visitation with family will be held at Moore's Chapel at 206 W. Center Street in Fayetteville from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

A memorial service will be held at Giffels Auditorium in Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus at 2 p.m. Wednesday. A reception will follow.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to either "Writers in the Schools" or the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas, c/o Molly Giles, English Department, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701.

From the poem "One for the Road," by James Whitehead.

Night full and the click of the lighter after love
is almost kind, and careless, too, like the laugh
I leave with the sullen bills. And that's the way
it is, if not the way it ought to be,
down this Memphis road . . .

October 2, 2003 in Obituaries, Photos | Permalink


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