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Obituary: Don Finkel brought grace and passion to his poetry and his teaching

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 17, 2008 - Donald Finkel, a celebrated poet and one of the most luminous stars in the galaxy of the English Department at Washington University in St. Louis, died Saturday of Alzheimer's Disease at Schuetz Manor, an assisted living facility in St. Louis County. He was 79 years old. The university lowered its flag Tuesday in his honor. A memorial service is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 12, at 11:30 a.m. in the Women's Building on the Washington University campus.

There is a certain irony today to the fact that a while back Mr. Finkel joked, "I was born in New York City in October 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash -- although I'm uncertain regarding any causal relationship."

Mr. Finkel grew up in the West Bronx, around the corner from Yankee Stadium. For someone who would become a pillar of an increasingly prestigious academic institution in the Midwest, he was trouble at school in New York City.

He played hooky from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, his son Tom noted, and was sent away to a boarding school in Connecticut, from which he graduated. He was tossed out of the University of Chicago. He went home to New York and spent a year at the Art Students League studying stone carving, an endeavor he loved and to which he returned late in life.

His academic fortunes turned in New York, however. He finished up his undergraduate work at Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and took both his undergraduate degree in philosophy and a Master's Degree in English from there, related his son, who is editor of The Riverfront Times.

Mr. Finkel taught briefly at the University of Illinois and moved from there to the University of Iowa, where he taught in the Writer's Workshop. He met his wife, the late Constance Urdang, there. They were married in 1956 and spent an idyllic year in Mexico after their wedding. Ms. Urdang, who died in 1996, was a poet as well and a novelist. Her work was prize winning and widely respected. In their marriage and in university life, they were very much a team.

Finkel and Urdang returned to Iowa after their honeymoon year, then moved on to Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and finally to St. Louis in 1960, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Rather than having existences that revolved around the English Department, to some extent, at least, the English Department orbited around them. He was an eloquent and influential teacher, and a mentor and paternal figure to generations of students at Washington U. Poet David Clewell, who is a professor and director of creative writing at Webster University, said he came to Washington University on the strength of Mr. Finkel's being there. Clewell said he knew Mr. Finkel's work and also his reputation for not following academically fashionable paths.

Clewell said Mr. Finkel was a brilliant teacher, one who knew how to argue with persuasive intelligence and grace, and sometimes to praise. "He did not preach from the mountain," Clewell said, "and he had a remarkable ability to treat us as equals." After leaving school with an MFA, and as he established his own career as a poet, Clewell and Mr. Finkel remained colleagues, but perhaps more important, good friends. Many other students of his shared such a relationship, and cherished it.

Wayne Fields came to Washington University in 1968. He now is a professor in the English Department as well as an intellectual eminence on the university's Danforth Campus.

"I was befriended by Connie and Don," he said. Fields recalled Mr. Finkel's being available to the young faculty member. "You could go in and talk, which wasn't true with some of the others," he said.

After Fields arrived, the Graduate Writing Program at Washington University began to gather momentum and to build a strong national reputation. In 1977, it was formally established within the English Department. Constance Urdang was its coordinator. Novelist Stanley Elkin taught fiction, and Mr. Finkel directed its poetry workshop.

Fields noted that the department had no writing program before this transpired. Nevertheless the academic and artistic energy to drive a great program were in place already in Duncker Hall, the department's headquarters on the Brookings Quadrangle.

"They all were there," Fields said. Besides Mr. Finkel and Ms. Urdang, two writers who would become poets laureate of the United States, Mona Van Duyn and Howard Nemerov, were around. (Van Duyn won a Pulitzer Prize. Nemerov was poet laureate twice.) Novelist-essayist-critic William Gass was an esteemed presence, as was the rabbinical David Hadas.

Naomi Lebowitz, described by Fields as everyone's model of what a teacher should be, was a professor in the department, and her lectures were celebrated and revered. Her husband, Albert, a lawyer, was writing fiction. And then, of course, there was the formidable Elkin, whose titanic personality tended to dominate things. Elkin promoted Lebowitz's novel, "Laban's Will," and made it required reading in a popular course he taught, "The Art of the Novel."

Naomi Lebowitz remembered Mr. Finkel's being beloved as one of the leaders of the Writing Program and said he maintained no professional defenses with the students. "He was right in there with the kids - and that was not easy, to be the head of the program and to encourage the students while being so unprotected and warm."

She mentioned another role, that of parent. "He was such a good father," she said. "Once he was worried that Tom couldn't dribble, so he brought Tom over here to have me teach him basketball."

In addition to teaching and helping to steer the course of the Writing Program, Mr. Finkel took his real job - poetry - deeply seriously, and published regularly throughout his career, and continued to write and to read his work long after his retirement in 1991, and until he began to suffer from Alzheimer's Disease a few years ago.

Besides his son, his half-brother, David Finkel of New York City, survives him, as do two daughters, Liza of Portland, Oregon, and Amy, of St. Louis, and two grandchildren, Annabel Rae and Jacob Elijah, also of St. Louis.

There is to be no funeral, but a memorial service, conducted by the Graduate Writing Program at Washington University in celebration of the lives and legacy of Donald Finkel and Constance Urdang, will be scheduled in the next few weeks. For information, call the English Department at 314-935-5190. The family requests in lieu of flowers that contributions can be made to the University City Public Library, 6701 Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63130.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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