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A loss to our community: Vern Rutsala

April 07, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I write to inform you that Professor Emeritus Vern Rutsala died on April 2 at age 80, just two weeks after the Oregon Book Awards honored him with the Charles Erskine Scott Wood Distinguished Writer Award in recognition of his “enduring, substantial literary career.”

Vern Rutsala was a prolific and distinguished poet whose public honors and renown were in stark contrast to his quiet demeanor.  “Writing poetry or practicing any of the arts is an individualizing process,” he once said. “Those parts of yourself that the larger world has little use for, your inner life, that’s where poems come from.”

As a teacher, he fostered conditions for students to explore those realms of self. “I can’t teach someone to be creative. That impulse must come from within,” he explained. “I simply react, point out what’s strong, and help students evolve.” 

Born in McCall, Idaho, Vern moved to Portland with his family in the wake of the Depression. He graduated from Milwaukie High School and then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1956 and an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1960. He came to Lewis & Clark in 1961 and continued to teach in the English Department until his retirement in 2004.

Over his lifetime, Vern published more than 700 poems in such venues as Atlantic Monthly, Times Literary Supplement, New Yorker, Midland, Poetry, Harper’s, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Mississippi Review, Nebraska Review, Seneca Review, and New Letters. He was the author of 16 books of poetry and his work has appeared in many anthologies.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize (which he won twice), a Pushcart Prize, a Masters Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Oregon Book Award, and many other significant honors and recognitions. In 2005, he was a finalist for the National Book Award for his volume The Moment’s Equation.

Illness prevented Vern from attending the recent Oregon Book Awards ceremony. In presenting his award at the Gerding Theater, President Glassner hailed him as “a proud laborer in the fields of literature and academia” and for “his extraordinary body of work, generosity of heart, commitment to truth, and clarity of voice.”

I recommend to you this wonderful remembrance of Vern by Oregonian book editor Jeff Baker.

Vern Rutsala’s literary archives are housed in Special Collections here at the College.

Vern leaves behind his wife Joan and their three children. Our hearts go out to them at this sad time.

Once the family has finalized plans for a memorial service, we will be sure to let you know.


Jane Atkinson, provost

For more information:

Office of the Provost