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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 21, No. 9, Nov. 1, 2001

Stillinger plans compilation of original poetry and critical essays

By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Photo by Bill Wiegand
Loves teaching Professor Jack Stillinger retired from the UI English department in May after 43 years. After earning the distinction of being named a Center for Advanced Study Professor of English in 1970, Stillinger returned to the classroom after a semester because he missed teaching.

Rather than gleefully announcing his unavailability now that he’s a retiree, the small sign on Jack Stillinger’s office door instead beckons to passers-by, offering Stillinger’s listening ear or helping hand to colleagues and students who want his assistance with writing, research or other scholarly endeavors.

"People actually take me up on this!" Stillinger said, referring to the sign. "It’s great. I like doing that. I have a tremendous fund of knowledge in my head even now, and it’s great to make use of it in a friendly way."

Stillinger, who retired in May after 43 years’ service, said he’s "as happy as can be" with this new phase of his life. A member of the English department faculty since 1958, Stillinger was named a Center for Advanced Study Professor of English in 1970. Achieving that distinction could have exempted him from teaching, but he missed the interaction with his undergraduate students so much after a semester out that he decided to return to the classroom.

Although he reluctantly gave up teaching, most days Stillinger can be found in his third-floor office in the English Building with the poet John Keats, the subject of several of his books, gazing thoughtfully out from a poster on the wall.

Stillinger has written more than 26 books throughout his career, in addition to numerous articles and reviews; his retirement has given him the opportunity to fulfill a longtime aspiration: writing a book of poetry.

"I don’t need to publish any more books to justify my life," Stillinger said, "but I’ve always wanted to publish a book of poems. And I wrote poems back in the 1970s, late ’60s and really enjoyed it, and really impressed everybody because nobody could believe that I – with the kind of scholar that I was with lots of footnotes and lots of factual compilations – could write poems about people going up in a balloon and bailing out."

Some of Stillinger’s poems, such as the one about the balloonists, already have appeared as prefaces to his books or been published in various journals. Stillinger now is compiling them, "in a leisurely way," into a volume of his own.

As with his kindred spirit, Keats, Stillinger said poems just seemed to "drop out of the sky" and into his head.

The seeming effortlessness with which he conceived the poems caused Stillinger’s interest to wane, and he ceased writing poetry for several years. However, his happiness with this particular phase in his life has rejuvenated Stillinger’s creative spirit – and changed his longtime belief that misery is the poet’s solitary muse.

Ever the teacher, Stillinger also is anthologizing some of the critical essays he wrote in journals throughout his career in hopes of reaching a fresh audience of readers: undergraduates who might be unlikely to peruse scholarly periodicals.

Even after spending more than half his life as a teacher, Stillinger said he would be in the classroom yet if a near-fatal heart attack two years ago and another recent health crisis had not left him feeling exhausted and depleted, prompting his reluctant decision not to return for the fall semester.

"I come over here every day and kind of hang out," Stillinger said, referring to his office. "And I run into people. I like to see them. It’s an OK way to be if you have to get old."

In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Stillinger is an avid bicyclist, riding through the Urbana-area countryside three days a week, traveling about 20 miles each trip. The flatness of the land, a topographical feature that repels some area visitors, and the sparse traffic make for great biking and good reasons for living in Urbana, Stillinger said.

Stillinger and his wife of 30 years, Nina Baym, also a distinguished member of the English faculty, enjoy travel, especially to France, which they visited again last spring. They also enjoy sojourns with their children and grandchildren, who are scattered throughout the states, and are planning a trip soon to Lawrence, Kan., to visit Baym’s daughter and her family there.


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