Gift Brings First Of Many Literary Greats
by Lauren DeFont
February 15, 2006
This is the tale of the gift that keeps on giving. It begins with a small-town single lady whose dream is to inspire others as she once was inspired. She passes that dream on to the students at her alma mater, and it is fulfilled.
Chapter one began when Jean Louise Stellfox '60 had the honor of meeting the poet Robert Frost when he came to Dickinson in 1959. As he interacted with students, Miss Stellfox was inspired to become an English teacher, a career which she loved and excelled at for 39 years in her hometown of Shamokin, Pa.
When Miss Stellfox died suddenly in 2003, after being struck in a hit-and-run accident, it was discovered that she had bequeathed most of a $1.5 million estate—an amount that nobody suspected this modest schoolteacher possessed—to Dickinson College to start a program that would bring renowned writers to campus.
Todd Kerstetter '93, Miss Stellfox's attorney and former student, contacted Dickinson about the planned gift (she had accumulated the money through careful saving and wise investment). The college set to work to find a literary figure who would meet the high standards set by this remarkable donor.
And so, the first annual recipient of the Stellfox Prize and Residency for Literary Excellence, Booker Award-winning British novelist Ian McEwan, arrived on campus Sept. 26 for a three-day visit.
When planning for McEwan's stay, Susan Perabo, writer-in residence, associate professor of English and chairperson of the Stellfox committee, asked herself, “What would Miss Stellfox want me to do?” She knew the answer—focus on the students. While it was necessary to include large, public programs, Perabo felt it would benefit the students more to offer small events conducive to one-on-one interaction.
The events McEwan participated in included two classes, one on creative writing and one on James Joyce, a question-and-answer session with 60 invited students, a faculty dinner, a book signing, a public reading and several other meals and receptions.
“The lunch we had was wildly successful,” Perabo says. It was McEwan and 12 students, divided into two groups so they would have more individual opportunities with the author. “Some of the students were literally trembling,” Perabo says, which is likely the same reaction of the students who had face time with Frost 46 years ago.
McEwan says the students he met were “charming, bright, open, humorous and easy to talk to.”
At the public reading on Sept. 28, the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium was so full that people were sitting on the stairs and standing in the entryway. After Perabo and Provost Neil Weissman officially presented McEwan with the award, the author gave a gracious speech in his soft, British accent, thanking Miss Stellfox for providing him with this opportunity.
He spoke of “the power of one good teacher” and the example that Miss Stellfox has set through her selflessness. McEwan said the combination of being the recipient of the prize and residency, and also being the first ever, was a double honor.
He then read an excerpt from his latest novel, Saturday, which takes place during one day in the life of a man struggling with post-9/11 issues. The captivated audience hung on each word.
McEwan summed up his entire experience at Dickinson in one word—enlivening. As for the students, they were as affected by the residency as McEwan was. “It was fantastic to have Ian McEwan here,” says Megan Browndorf '08, “because he solidifies the idea that writers are real people.”
With the success of McEwan's stay, Perabo and the search committee already are hard at work deciding who will qualify to succeed McEwan next year.
And there is a new honorary member on their search committee. “I'm very interested to see who is next, and I'm going to keep an eye out,” McEwan says. He already has deemed several of his peers to be worthy of the task and strongly feels that everyone who gets this opportunity in the future will be very fortunate.
Thanks to Miss Stellfox, many more esteemed writers will be able to come to Dickinson , and many more students will have the opportunity to be inspired.
Perabo also is pleased because she feels Miss Stellfox's wishes were fulfilled. “She wanted this to be an experience for students to meet someone important,” Perabo says.
Aspiring writer Eric Fehn '06 feels that McEwan's presence “inspires hope for future writers. In the process of learning about his craft, technique, intricacies and routines, I can better my own. This opportunity has allowed more chances for growth in my work, which I am incredibly excited and, most importantly, thankful about.”
Browndorf agrees, saying, “Having Ian McEwan here was an inspirational experience, one that has influenced my will to write.”
Mission accomplished, Miss Stellfox.