William F. Van Wert
On December 30, 2003, the Temple English Department lost a valued colleague, teacher, and mentor when Dr. Bill Van Wert passed away. A professor at Temple since receiving his doctorate in 1975, Dr. Van Wert taught a variety of classes in the English department, from undergraduate film studies courses to graduate creative writing tutorials. He was the author of several novels (What's It All About, Stool Wives, Don Quixote), collections of short stories (Tales for Expectant Fathers, Missing in Action, The Advancement of Ignorance), poetry collections (The Invention of Ice Skating, Proper Myth, Vital Signs), and a collection of essays (Memory Links). In addition, he has also published extensively in the area of film studies. For these achievements, he was recognized as Laura Carnell Professor in Spring 2000, and was serving as the director of undergraduate English studies at the time of his death. His death is a profound loss to the department and the college, both faculty and students.
Those close to Bill know that he was deeply committed to the development of his students as writers. With this in mind, his family has planned a memorial fund to benefit creative writing students at Temple University. Donations for the fund should be made payable to “Temple University (for Bill Van Wert)” and sent to:
The English Faculty Association
c/o Gloria Basmajian
English Department (022-29)
1114 Polett Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19122-6090
This web page gathers together memorials and reminisces of Bill Van Wert, submitted by colleagues and students. If you would like to contribute to this page, please contact us.
Except when I am most alive—
the laughter after special sex,
the maples bleeding in the fall,
my father's handshake when I leave,
the tufts of winter snow like wool,
my children grateful on my knee,
mimosas assaulting the bees in spring,
friends who call from years ago
to remember something that I said,
the silence of a summer lake,
a lake becalmed that clears its throat
by bass breaking water. Then,
when I am most alert, they speak to me.
They tell me I am dying too,
As though they were jealous.
As though they were all alone
And waiting for just the right moment
To ask me to dance. I stall,
defer, make any excuse to get away.
I say when all the music's done
then I'll dance with them.
They seem pleased at the show of will.
They stall, defer, make every excuse
to get away, as though they were
mirroring me. They know that I know
it's not the dancing that interests them,
but all the musical stops.
—William Van Wert
- Temple Times
- Philadelphia Inquirer
To contribute a memory of Prof. Van Wert, contact us.
Paul Farmer, Graduate student
Bill VanWert was never a prof. of mine but I have memories of how bright he was and of how generous he was with what he knew. I remember that he smiled and acknowledged students in a gentle way and somehow appeared wise for it. Also, he'd sat in on a seminar a couple of times and he'd spoken up during a few discussions. I really liked the form he found for his thoughts. For no other reason than that I admired VanWert, I asked other grad. students about him here and there, and a couple of days in a row I went to the library for a few hours to read his novels and his lit. crit. So by the time I went to one of his readings in Anderson Hall, I was as curious about his personality as I was with his intellectual interests.
Other professors get scrutinized in these sort of underground ways, and when grad. students ask about profs, or other students' opinions of them, they do these things out of admiration. We want to be influenced by them, I suppose. And for me, Professor VanWert was a lot like what I'd like to be some day.
I appreciate the chance to say something about Professor VanWert- he remains a special man to me despite his passing.
Lauren DePino, Senior English/Spanish major
I remember attending the study abroad fair last year. After perusing the many tables that offered programs in Spain, decorated with fanfare and prestigious names such as Middlebury, I reached Bill Van Wert's table with a lone flyer and sign-up sheet. He was so excited about the program. Incidentally, that program is one of the most memorable experiences of my life because of Bill's friendship. Throughout the trip he demonstrated his love for life and fearlesness to try new things. He befriended me and especially after attending his memorial service I feel so incredibly lucky to have known him. In particular, I remember his in-your-face humor, the way he took zillions of pictures on the trip, our interesting discussions when we went to lunch during siesta time, and how he always raved about his girlfriend and sons. His career and academic advice will always stay with me--not to mention the way he valued his family and friends more than anything.
David D. Silverman, Temple University English Alumni (2003)
I am stunned at the news of Professor Van Wert's untimely death. He was such an inspiration to me and countless other English majors throughout my final semesters at Temple. I remember how excited he was when I told him I would be attending law school -- although he relentlessly tried to persuade me to apply for graduate studies in English at Temple.
As an adult student with many years of working experience who returned to complete the final stages of undergraduate education on a full-time basis, Professor Van Wert was especially sensitive and caring to my intellectual and emotional circumstances. His classroom offered a challenging environment to express new ideas and concepts in English at a myriad of levels. As a rule, the intellectual and dialogic capacity of his classroom was always cutting edge. Indeed, I enjoyed his International Film Class so much over the Summer of 2002 that I promptly registered for his Art of Film course in the Fall of 2002.
Professor Van Wert's presence during my final semester at Temple was almost continuous. In addition to his challenging course on film (English 170) and running into him throughout the day at Anderson Hall, he was a visible presence in a graduate course on fictional permutation's instructed by Dr. Sue-Im Lee that I was participating in for an independent study credit. Professor Van Wert showed us film and assisted on our study and interpretation of Robbe-Grillet's novel, Jealousy. This again was one of many examples where Professor Van Wert was so generous with his time and caring for all students -- from the novice to the most advanced.
Lastly, I will always remember Professor Van Wert's smile, sense of humor, commitment to education/professionalism and his passion for the directors Peter Greenaway and Atom Egoyan, as well as the music of Michael Nyman. In short, Professor Van Wert was a remarkable gentlemen, afficianado of the arts and a remarkable scholar who left a lasting legacy for both Temple University and his many students. My heart goes out to his family and friends at this time of grief.
Jimmy J. Pack Jr., Graduate Creative Writing Alumni
I am at the bar in Solaris Grill in Chestnut Hill. I’m not sitting with anyone—the bar is empty this time of day. I have a lot to think about… When I first moved to Philadelphia in 1997 it took me five weeks to get a job. Having just graduated from Central Connecticut State University I moved to Philly to be closer to my high school friend, Angela. I naively handed my resume to the front desks of Philadelphia Magazine and WHYY believing I was qualified for some sort of job; after all, that English BA had to be good for something other than serving sub-mediocre food to less-than-fine diners at an area Friendly’s.
After four weeks of hitting the pavement and handing my resumes to people who politely placed it in the circular file, I was defeated. It only took a week for the Chestnut Hill Borders to hire me. It wasn’t so bad. I moved to the Chestnut Hill area as a way of weaning myself into city-life. The horn blasts and urine-soaked subways of Center City were a sensory overload.
It was in that Borders, my fourth month of working, where I met poet Susan Stewart. We had a brief conversation, but in those few moments I explained to her that I was applying to the Creative Writing MA program at Temple University. Ms. Stewart gave me a heads- up. “Bill Van Wert is one of the writers in the program. He’s terrific.”
Ms. Stewart was right.
Dr. Van Wert and I met up for coffee two weeks after classes began. He lived in Mt. Airy and was always willing to make time for a good conversation and hot coffee. We were sitting in the café of the Chestnut Hill Borders. The conversation flowed; we spoke of the Modernists, Post-Modernists and the comparison between filmmakers and novelists. Dr. Van Wert was the kind of man who could hold your attention in a conversation and never bore you.
A few weeks ago Dr. Van Wert was admitted to the Chestnut Hill Hospital ICU to recover from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. On December 30 Dr. Van Wert, only in his 50s, passed away at 1:30 p.m. from a pulmonary embolism. The news was delivered to me via an email I received two days later.
Shock doesn’t even come close to how I felt. . . . This was all wrong. I sat in front of my computer thinking of all our conversations — the long ones at Borders, Starbucks or in his office; the short ones outside of class; the quickies as I passed him carrying a coffee and a bagged sandwich up to his office. Even the conversations I had with him after I graduated when he kept telling me to call him Bill, but out of respect I preferred Dr. Van Wert. And now that respect holds all the memories I have of Dr. Van Wert. Respect for his command of language; respect for his ability to provide positive criticism for a student’s work; respect for someone imbued with a Midwestern friendliness, kind nature and an amazing ability to foster creativity in a person.
I order another Jameson’s. The smell reminds me of the time I read a short story of mine at the Temple Gallery. Dr. Van Wert was sitting up front, smiling, his head tilted so his good ear could pick up everything I read too fast. His response to me after the reading: “That was fantastic, Jimmy.” A few months later, after Dr. Van Wert returned from a summer session in Italy, we met at Starbucks, 8 a.m. The topic of conversation: grad school. Should I move on for a Ph.D.? After an hour-and-a-half, he convinced me. “Head west, Jimmy. Some great schools out there, and so many of the writers you love write about that region.” He was gentle in his persuasion.
I’m going to miss Dr. Van Wert very much. He added so much kindness and color to the world. What a loss... What a great loss.
First-Year Graduate Fiction Class: Shinelle Espaillat, Adrian Khactu, Jeremiah Merceruio, Joel Nichols, Katherine Selfridge, Thomas E. Soper, Richard A. Squires, Sonia Vora, & James S. Zigarelli
The entire first year fiction class would like to send its condolences to the department for the loss of Bill Van Wert. None of us had the opportunity to work with Bill, although we were all looking forward to it. At every meeting with him, he displayed qualites of decency, intelligence and most exciting for us, a real enthusiasm for his students. His absence is a loss for us all.
Mary Ann Mannino, Graduate Creative Writing & Literature Alumni, Visting Assistant Professor, Temple
I met Bill VanWert in the summer of 1984 at a party to welcome the first Creative Writing class at Temple. I was a member of that class, returning to school after a long absence determined to be a short story writer.
I was surprised to learn that Bill was raising three little boys by himself. I think Ian, the oldest was about eight then. After getting the boys off to school and doing other domestic chores, Bill would come to class with an enormous container of black coffee, a pack of marlboros and a great gentle personality. He wrote at all hours of the night but was always kind to me when I dropped off stories or called him in the morning at 8 or 9. Bill was the kindest critic but he did criticize. I still have the stories I submitted in ’84 and ’85 with his notes and I still have the paper on which he wrote all the things I had to avoid doing if I wanted my writing to improve. I eventually graduated from the program and stayed at Temple to get my PhD. All my electives were spent in Bill’s writing classes. He was someone whom I admired, at first, for his brilliance and skill as a writer but as the years went on I admired him much more for his courage in the face of illness and his gentleness and sense of humor that made me and many people smile just to see him in the hall. I will always be grateful to him for helping me achieve my goals and for teaching me to never let life’s twists and turns destroy my sense of humaness.