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Essay on Jim Whitehead aired on "Ozarks at Large"

Aired Aug. 22 and Aug. 24, 2003, on KUAF "Ozarks at Large"

By Katherine Shurlds

Used with author's permission.

Larger than life. It's a phrase often used to describe Jim Whitehead. Jim wouldn't like that description, if for no other reason than it's trite.

Sure, he was a big guy. Big Jim. Six foot five, beefy and boisterous. His booming voice unmistakable in a crowd.

It wasn't until his memorial service, though, that I realized he really is larger than life. The energy contained in that man couldn't be extinguished merely because his aorta had a weak spot that gave way.

It was clear in that bittersweet setting, there in Giffels Hall, that Big Jim's largeness, his energy, was fueled by love. Yeah, love -- that emotion so susceptible to triteness, still, that's what fed Big Jim's furnace.

So many of the people he loved and who loved him spoke of Jim's largeness, and largess. They spoke of how he sometimes showed his love in a traditional way -- calling sick friends daily, keeping up with former students' careers. And they told the funny stories of Jim's other way of showing love -- the challenging, gruff, intimidating kind, the kind that forced you to stand up for yourself.

People even on the periphery of that love, myself included, knew of his energy. I first met Jim because, as I was leaving Ole Miss, having finished my master's degree course work, Willie Morris gave me an assignment to interview Jim.

Morris was beginning a new magazine at Oxford and he wanted it to focus on Mississippi. And Jim loved Mississippi.

Meeting Jim in his office at Kimpel Hall in the fall of 1981, I was of course immediately impressed by his size. And the intimidation that people often feel when in Jim's presence fell on me immediately, when Jim asked: "Have you read my novel?"

My whimpering attempt to appease him with "I read the first couple of chapters" prompted a well-deserved lecture on how one doesn't interview a writer having not read what the writer has written.

I thought he was going to throw me out of his office. Instead, he went on with the interview and invited me to his home and to his study -- the famous study where he has engaged so many good friends and students.

We talked about teaching, poetry, the struggle to write a second novel, the pride he had in the writing program at Fayetteville, and of course, we talked about Mississippi.

In an oration that seemed to come from one breath, he said, "I miss the piney woods in south Mississippi, the coast, the Delta a little bit. I love the landscape, the storytelling. I miss being around a certain kind of talk. I care about the history, the politics. I worry about who's governor and who's not governor, about who is doing what to whom. I read the papers, letters from home. I worry about it not working out with the black people of Mississippi. I worry about the collapse of a first-rate public education, about white flight from the schools."

But he loved Fayetteville too. "I live in the South," he said. "I live in a good place in the South. It's not as if I live in Dubuque."

As anyone who knows Jim knows, he and I didn't just talk about things I could put in my article. We talked about racism, literature, world politics -- or I should say, I was quizzed about racism, literature and world politics.

It was a few years after the interview and publication of the story that I began to realize something about Jim that one of his Mississippi friends said at the memorial. He said, "When Jim met a person, he would keep that person."

Jim kept me, not in the same way as he kept his family and close friends and former students, but in a way that whenever I approached him for some project I was working on, he would be enthusiastic and supportive.

The last project we worked on together was a book of Bob Douglas' memorials. Jim had spoken at the memorial service and was allowing me to reproduce his words for the book.

True to style, Jim was the only one to demand to see a galley proof. "Hell, yeah," he said, "I'm not going to let you print something of mine if I don't see it first."

Once he read the proof -- and changed some of his own words he didn't like upon second reading -- we talked. We talked about Bob and about growing older and about death. It was as if we had a habit of talking every day, the intimacy of that conversation. Only someone with so large a soul could embrace an occasional friend with such warmth. Only someone larger than life.

January 21, 2004 in Articles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

1987 article on the U-Arkansas Creative Writing Program

Northwest Arkansas Times article from 1987


Click continue to see the larger (and more readable) version of the image.


January 20, 2004 in Articles | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Professor's accomplishments noted in posthumous honors


Northwest Arkansas Times

Posted on Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Whitehead family has strong ties to Old Main at the University of Arkansas.

The late professor James Whitehead?s first office was in the campus ? signature building. Its meeting hall, Giffels Auditorium, embraced both a Whitehead marriage and a memorial service for the late professor.

Old Main brought the family together once again Saturday as they joined state Reps. Marilyn Edwards, D-Fayetteville, and Sarah Agee, R-Prairie Grove, for the reading of a resolution honoring Whitehead for his accomplishments. "He instructed in so many ways," Edwards said. "He was a writer, a poet. He was everything a university [professor] should be."

Whitehead died unexpectedly Aug. 15, 2003, at the age of 67.

He taught creative writing at the university from 1965 to 1999, and after his retirement, he retained an office and assisted the school with grant proposals.

Whitehead founded the creative writing program at the UA along with Miller Williams and William Harrison.

His publications included four books of poetry, "Domains, "" Local Men," "Actual Size" and "Near at Hand," and a novel, "Joiner," which was on The New York Times' Noteworthy Books of the Year list in 1971. His literary awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a Robert Frost Fellowship in poetry. "It's wonderful," Phil Whitehead said of his father's legacy being honored Saturday. "We all realized how hard a worker he was, and he helped build one of the best creative writing departments."

The proclamation noted Whitehead's "keen intellect, a firm sense of justice on many issues, and a fully formed ferocity on a broad range of thought."

It also included a statement expressing the 84 th General Assembly's sympathy to the family and friends and offered thanks for his dedication to family, community and church.

Following the proclamation presentation, the family recalled memories of their patriarch.

Gen Whitehead, the professor's widow, spoke about the outpouring of appreciation shown for her husband at the funeral service.

Former students and colleagues traveled from several states to Fayetteville for the funeral services, she said. "He loved teaching here, and we have always loved Fayetteville," she said.

January 20, 2004 in Articles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack