Remembering Les Whipp
An Open Letter to A Past NeWP Site Director
20 June 2008
Clyde told me yesterday of your serious illness. I am sorry to learn of your current pain. Kate joins me in sending our sympathy and best wishes to you, and to Vivian, as you wrestle with the discomfort of hospital stays and chemotherapy and antiseptic separation from your home place.
Your news reached me in the middle of this year's Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute, the program you helped form here at UNL in 1978, and so my thoughts turn to the long enduring reach of the Writing Project to which you devoted so much time, energy, and emotion. I've heard testimonials over the years from many Nebraska teachers who worked with you in the late seventies and early eighties. I have heard how they found their own love of writing through your Writing Project, how in turn they've shared that love with the young writers in their classes. And, often, I've added my own testimonial to their voices. I have told how I still remember my first summer in Nebraska, how you and Vivian put Kate and me up in your grand three-story home on Ryons Street while we found a place to rent, how you hauled me down to campus my very first full day in Lincoln to visit the Nebraska Writing Project. That day, a drama teacher read minutes (we call these "A Day in the Life" now) comparing NeWP to a fancy restaurant and you to a well-meaning, sauce-stained maitre d' called "Le Whippe." That day, a secondary ESL teacher conducted her teaching demonstration entirely in Portuguese to give us all the experience of what our English Language Learners experience every class. That day, you shared a story in small group of a second grade memory, when you boys from your rural Minnesota elementary school engaged in a particular distance urinary competition and the story ended with a question to us all: when in our lives do each of us become "one of the great ones" like your eight-year-old colleague who reached his peak in the field out behind the one-room school? I remember returning from that morning convinced I'd come to the right place, convinced I could really do my own best work here, and convinced I'd be a full participant in the Nebraska Writing Project the next summer. As you know, I've been working with NeWP ever since. It's been my academic and personal center for just shy of a quarter century, a length of time that is for many an entire career, and I'm looking forward to the years I have yet to share with the Nebraska Writing Project.
The program you started in 1978 is now in its thirtieth year, one of the oldest Writing Project sites in the country. The program you started now generates over 20,000 contact hours with teachers every year, has the federal support of Nebraska Congressmen and Senators, has local partnerships with several school districts and leadership deep within the State Department of Education. This summer, we're running two institutes, both running at capacity, as well as an Advisory Board retreat, a Writing Marathon and Retreat, and sending our teachers to three National Writing Project programs elsewhere in the country. The Nebraska teachers that make up the Nebraska Writing Project have continued to build on the program you started, to speak out for the excellence and expertise of classroom teachers, and to grow writers in their schools and communities. Like the proverbial youngsters who stood on the shoulders of giants, current NeWP teachers are well aware of the rich tradition we draw on here, of our good fortune to follow such established, humane, and visionary leaders.
The Christmas before you left Nebraska, you gave me an ancient book, a 1916 edition of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing. You suggested I skip around in it to see how the very conception of writing has changed from that era to now, how far we've come from the ideas of genteel class and British Empire that motivate the author. But even with these critiques, you drew my special attention to the page inside the front cover, where you had written your name beneath the name of Margaret Ashida, who had written her name beneath the name of Marguerite C. MacPhee. These names, which meant nothing to me, you claimed as the names of your predecessor in the English Education position in UNL's English department, and of your predecessor's predecessor. This book, you indicated, was an heirloom book for those of us who would choose to center our work amongst English teachers in the state's schools, and you hoped I'd keep it for a while before, in due course, writing my name in it and giving it to another. I'm a few years shy of that moment, but after receiving Clyde's message I pulled the faded volume off the shelf. A few sentences struck me as resonant:
As literature is an art and therefore not to be pondered only, but practised, so ours is a living language and therefore to be kept alive, supple, active in all honourable use. . . . Yes, I seriously propose to you that here in Cambridge we practise writing; that we practise it not only for our own improvement, but to make, or at least try to make, appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing a hall-mark of anything turned out by our school. [21-27]
Les, we live in Nebraska, not Cambridge, and we now teach genders and ethnicities and nationalities that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch could not begin to imagine. But I am glad to have learned from you some of the same truisms stated here: how ours is a "living language" and "therefore to be kept alive," how here in Nebraska we might should continue to make writing a living "practice" every bit as thoughtful and professional as the practice of medicine or engineering or religion, how such a practice aims both at our "own improvement" and at the "hall-mark of anything turned out by our schools." We are better people, and better teachers, because we write; we have better schools and the hope of a better statewide future because we share our practice with our students. Many of us have the Nebraska Writing Project to thank, at least in part, for some of the hallmarks of this practice. And, through NeWP, we in turn thank you.
I am inviting participants in the current Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute to add their comments to my own. The program you started thirty years ago continues to inspire us all. May the energy represented by these expressions of gratitude lend you new energy at this trying time.
With much love and deep thanks,