Toni Morrison died on August 5, her life’s work as a Nobel Laureate celebrated in the New Yorker’s August 19 issue of Talk of the Town.
Toni Morrison was one of four Noble Laureates and probably scores of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners to visit Washington College in the early days of the Rose O’Neill Literary House. Her poster I believe is still there, a fine letterpress edition by Mike Kaylor of a section from Beloved.
We got her to come against all odds because of the ingenuity of Douglass Cater, the President of Washington College at the time. In those days, as Director of the Literary House, among my responsibilities was to arrange for the literary visitors to the college; I would often ask students their advice.
One day four or five Black students (maybe constituting a majority of Black students at the college at that time) came into my office and asked if I might invite a black writer to campus. I said I could probably get Gwendolyn Brooks, a fellow Kansan who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But the students in my office asked me to invite Toni Morrison. I’ll try, I said.
I checked with her agent and thought her fee was too high for the college, but I asked Douglass Cater to make sure. He said that instead of paying a stipend, how about we give her the Washington College Literary Award and name a scholarship in her honor. I pointed out we did not have a Washington College Literary Award, and Douglass said: “Then let’s make one.” And he did.
I sent the invitation to Ms. Morrison noting that a student scholarship would be named in her honor and that she would meet the student. She accepted. It was later in the semester she came to campus; by that time the English Department had decided on the Toni Morrison Scholar.
In this way began the Washington College Literary Awards and (by my foggy memory) some given to celebrated writers who came to campus to meet their student Scholarship Holders, others just to be honored: William Warner, Douglass Wallop, William Stafford, Edward Albee, Katherine Anne Porter, Galway Kinnell, James Tate, Donald Justice, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, James Dickey (but he was drunk and only read one poem), Walter Bernstein, Mavis Gallant, W.D. Snodgrass and Gwendolyn Brooks among others.
But the Toni Morrison Scholarship was the first, and as such it honored a Black student at Washington College: a beloved gift indeed.
—From Robert Day, who ran the Rose O’Neill Literary House between 1970 and 1997

The Elm

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