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Home:  >News & Events   >News Archives   >2003

Gifted writer, instructor James Whitehead dies at 67

Aug. 16, 2003

By Jerry Mitchell
The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jim Whitehead never forgot where he came from.

The graduate of the old Central High in Jackson helped found the nationally acclaimed Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and spent 35 years teaching writing there, but underneath it all, “he was a deep-dyed Mississippian,” said author Barry Hannah of Oxford.

The 67-year-old writer and poet died Friday, Aug. 15, at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville of a ruptured aortic aneurism, an unexpected event that stunned those who knew him.

“I’m just crushed,” said Hannah, the author of Airships, who plans to attend funeral services Wednesday. “I doubt I’d be anything without Jim Whitehead giving me confidence in the 1960s. He’s been a pal, an absolute sterling friend. He was a wonderful gentleman and a part of truth and beauty.”

Midway through the civil rights era, Hannah arrived in Fayetteville, sickened by the hate and cowardice of the Klan that had torn his state apart. “I was ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back.” In Whitehead, Hannah said, he found a loving mentor who “made me proud of my state all over again.”

After graduating from Central High, Whitehead attended Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship, eventually earning a master’s in English before going to the University of Iowa and receiving a master of fine arts from Iowa’s nationally renown creative writing program.

His literary awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a Robert Frost Fellowship in poetry. He wrote 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 for 1971. He gave the Presidential Poem for President Jimmy Carter on his return to Plains, Ga., in 1981, and later edited his book of poems.

Whitehead’s daughter, Kathleen Paulson, said her father had been upset Friday because funding had been cut for the writers program he so treasured. She said he was on the way to buy flowers for his 44th wedding anniversary, when he started having abdominal pain.

Paulson rushed him to the hospital. Tests showed he had a leaking aneurism. Doctors rushed him to surgery, but it was too late. The aneurism ruptured.

“He gave so much to his students,” she said. “He was tough on them, but they loved him.”

His students and friends knew him as “Big Jim,” a broad, sturdy man who was nothing less than intense. Whitehead and his wife, Gen, together raised seven children, including triplets.

“He would intimidate you, if you didn’t know him any better,” said Ole Miss alum Sidney Thompson, who studied under Whitehead in the early 1990s and is featured in Stories From the Blue Moon Cafe 2. “Once you got to know him, he was a warm, good-hearted man.”

Thompson remembered Whitehead’s kindness from the first day, when Whitehead asked him, “Do you have a place to stay? If you don't, you can stay with me.”

The very first voice that Indianola native Steve Yarbrough heard after he arrived at the University of Arkansas campus in 1981 belonged to his teacher.

“As soon as I got a phone, it rang, and it was Whitehead,” recalled Yarbrough, the author of Oxygen Man, who now teaches writing himself. “If you were from Mississippi, that meant you were his. He called and said, ‘Are you coming over or not?’ He was one of the big reasons I decided to go there.”

Students recalled how Whitehead would in one animated conversation expound upon the poetry of W.B. Yates to his hopes for 2004 Democratic contenders. He was completing a screenplay on the life of the first-century Roman solder Tiberius Julius Abderus Panter.

Whitehead spent hours in the evening with his classes and hours with individual students, returning manuscripts full of editing, Yarbrough said. “The amount of ink tripled the weight of it.”

If a student had written poorly, Whitehead would pound his head against the wall, recalled Steve Yates, assistant marketing manager at University Press of Mississippi. But he balanced sternness with compassion, said Yates, a 1998 graduate of the master of fine arts program at Arkansas. “When he was happy with you, you felt so golden, and you felt so good at what you’d achieved.”

Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Tuesday at Moore’s Funeral Home, 206 W. Center St. in Fayetteville. Services are 2 p.m. Wednesday in Giffels Auditorium in Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus. Memorials may be made to the “Writers in the Schools” program or to the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas.

Related Link
Obituary: James T. Whitehead. The Clarion-Ledger (17 Aug. 2003).

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