Memories of UA educator live in new book :: Northwest Arkansas' News Source.

Memories of University of Arkansas educator live in new book

Posted on Sunday, July 12, 2009

They sat in boxes, an army of them, waiting for a phone call. The heiress to the hundreds of yellow legal pads and other forms of tablature does not recall the exact day in December 2005.

She can confirm, though, that it was before Christmas and a couple weeks after marrying former University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles.

Gen Broyles took the call from Michael Burns, a former UA undergraduate and graduate student who taught English at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., at the time. Like several students before and after him, Burns' education in Fayetteville included several classes with Jim Whitehead, a revered English professor who helped found the university's creative writing program in 1965 and went on to teach for 34 years. When Whitehead died in 2003 from an aortic dissection at the age of 67, Gen, his widow, was left with a treasure trove of unpublished poems and prose.

"I was thrilled that [Burns] called me and asked if he could do this because I was sitting here thinking, 'I have all these things that belong to Jim and I don't know what to do with them,'" Broyles said.

Burns wanted to come down to Fayetteville to excavate around Whitehead's old study and the basement closets where most of the stash was kept. Burns' original plan - what he referred to as "a less ambitious project" - was to create a book that contained the work of his former teacher combined with graduates and friends of the UA creative writing program in time for the 40th anniversary of the program in 2008.

"I knew I had plenty of material to work from that was his," Burns said.

The result of that initial trip turned out to be much bigger than either Burns or Broyles could have hoped for: "For, From, About James T. Whitehead: Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections." The book was released in May by Missouri State University's Moon City Press through the University of Arkansas Press as part of a consortium agreement hashed out a year ago. A portion of the proceeds will go directly to the creative writing program at Arkansas.

A different concept

The book is divided into three parts: recollections, poems and writings of Whitehead and poems and other literary pieces in honor of the 6-foot-5 man who most knew as "Big Jim." The book's 24 contributors include Bill Harrison, who co-founded the creative writing program with Whitehead; Miller Williams, a fellow award-winning poet who has published 32 books of varying genres; and even former President Jimmy Carter, who was taught poetry as a long-distance student by Whitehead and Williams in the early '80s.

Jim Baumlin, an English professor at Missouri State University and the founder and editor of Moon City Press, called the book "a hybrid."

"That became the concept we were both going for as we realized we had more time and more material," Burns added. "We had the potential for a book that was a little different than the other things that were out there."

The time came partly as a result of some health issues that Burns faced, which delayed the process. The material turned out to be an overwhelming amount, far too much for Burns to sift through by himself. Graduate students from a research class Baumlin taught at Missouri State were soon enlisted to sort and organize all of the writings once the more than 9 cubic feet of materials were brought up to the Springfield school. Eventually the students formed a 100-page finding aid as well as an electronic word search database.

"It made them scholars," Baumlin said.

Burns expected to find a healthy amount of neverseen-before poetry, but he did not expect all of the legal pads containing chapters of two books, "Coldstream" and "Bergeron," that he toiled with as sequels to his popular 1971 novel "Joiner." Both endeavors, which include tons of edits and rewrites written out in longhand, never were quite finished.

"I learned that all those years we hoped he was working on a sequel to 'Joiner,' he was," Burns said of "Coldstream." "He was giving [his] blood and tears to that book."

The new book includes a passage from "Coldstream" as well as the opening to "Getting an Altamira," a commissioned project in which Whitehead flew to Brazil to do a piece for Oui magazine in 1973 about a budding public works project that was being conducted in the Amazon. The essay was never published.

'A wonderful compliment'

One of the poems of Whitehead's in the book is "For Miller Williams."

"Of course it means a great deal to me," Williams said of the poem. "Jim was like both a son and brother to me."

Two of Williams' poems, "The Alphabet as Part of What We Are" and "An Unrhymed Sonnet," are included in the book. Williams first met Whitehead in 1957 when he worked as a biology teacher at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Whitehead, who was enrolled in some summer school classes while still a 21-year-old student at Vanderbilt University from Jackson, also met his 19-yearold future wife from Yazoo City, Miss., there the same year while she was taking classes to knock out some required courses to graduate from the Mississippi State College for Women in three years.

"When he showed me his poetry, I was truly impressed by the way he could handle the language without trying to be highfalutin about it," recalled Williams. "He wrote comfortable poems that anybody could read or understand without looking up the words in the dictionary, and that's not always true today."

So far, the book has been seen mainly by family and friends, many of whom should be on hand Sept. 9 at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville to read poems and other writings by Whitehead during "A Celebration of Jim Whitehead: Readings from his Works." All of the feedback has been positive, including that from those who knew the man the best.

"I was very pleased," Williams said. "I don't think Jim has been remembered as well as he ought to, and I think the book helps."

"They think it's very good and a wonderful compliment to Jim," said Gen Broyles, who provided a number of photos for the book. "I just had no idea that anything like this could or would ever happen, so it was completely unexpected. It's like getting a present you had no idea you were going to have."

July 14, 2009 in Admirers, Articles, Books, Events, Friends, Memories of Jim, Students | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Dedication to Jim

Jim and Bill were my first Arkansas friends. I can never think of Fayetteville without either of them, now just the one. I've dedicated my new collection of poems, "Gypsy With Baby," to Jim. They're the best I've done, and I hope he'd have liked them. Love and thanks always to Jim.

Heather Ross Miller

April 26, 2005 in Admirers, Books, Friends | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why I built this site

Some may have found other sites where I've posted copies of some of the newspaper articles archived here. I am a keeper of blogs, or weblogs.

I've seen these types of sites used as more permanent memorial web pages. Many people can contribute to such sites: family, friends, students, and in this case, literary admirers. I built another such site this past summer for an uncle I lost who was about the same age as Jim. I wasn't sure how it would work with my family and the grieving process, but I know it helped me. The response from my family was just what I'd hoped it would be, and what I hope for this site. I know it is online and Jim hated computers, but many of us are scattered so far away and couldn't come to the memorial service...

How this site came about:

Jim's oldest daughter, Kat Paulson, found one of my blogs and contacted me, and through the course of our conversation, she asked me to build this memorial site. I would never have presumed to do such a thing without the blessing of the family, and I send them all much love.

What to do with this site:

Add to it. Here are some ways you can join in the memorial.

Easiest Way: Sign the guestbook by clicking on the comments link. Include a link to virtual flower pictures on the web or something, a poem, a quote, whatever, that makes you think of Jim.

Second Easiest Way: Add comments anywhere you see a comments link. Add thoughts to someone else's memory or posted poem, etc. Be sure to include an email address, as I set the site not to allow anonymous comments. Don't worry, this software is also set to protect you from spam harvesters.

Third Easiest Way: Use a comments link to drop me a line requesting a contributor login ID. It is extremely simple, because you just click the "Contributor Login" button under the calendar and login. Posting a full entry to the site is as easy as filling out a web form to order a book at, except no one will ask you for your credit card! [grin]

If you have some pictures you would like to share, you can also upload those using "Contributor Login," or I can put them up for you if you send them as a .jpg attachment by email.

Artwork, poetry, remembrances, and metaphysical thoughts are welcome!
(always subject to the sensibilities of Jim's family members, who can ask me to take anything down that makes them uncomfortable)

I've got pictures I'm going to add soon as well. I dug in my negative files and found the full shoot of the day I took that picture that is on the back cover of "Near at Hand" and the U of Ark Press reprint of "Joiner."


September 22, 2003 in About this site, Admirers, Family, Friends, Students | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack