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For 54 years, SLU’s literary award has connected big-name writers and St. Louis audiences

Over the past half-century, organizers of the St. Louis Literary Award have built what was once a modest effort — aimed at raising funds for St. Louis University Libraries and enhancing SLU’s connection to the community — into something much bigger.

St. Louis University Libraries
St. Louis University Libraries
In its early years, the St. Louis Literary Award ceremony took place in SLU’s Pius XII Memorial Library.

The university’s archivist emeritus, John Waide, has had a unique view of the program’s evolution. He was a new employee at Pius XII Memorial Library in the mid-’70s when he saw chairs being set up for an event in the library.

St. Louis University Libraries
SLU's archivist emeritus, John Waide, last year published a book titled "The History of the St. Louis Literary Award." It includes reflections on the annual program's evolution as well as posters, event photos and other highlights from the celebrations with each author.

“I asked one of my colleagues, ‘What is this?’” Waide recalled to St. Louis on the Air. “And they said, ‘Oh, the Library Associates — they’re getting ready for the St. Louis Literary Award. … They’re going to give that to a famous author this weekend.’”

Shelby Foote. Eudora Welty. George Plimpton. Chinua Achebe. Since 1967, SLU’s award has regularly brought celebrated writers to town. And while the early award ceremonies were held in the library itself, the event now typically takes place in a much larger venue, as with this week’s honoring 2021 St. Louis Literary Award recipient Zadie Smith. It will be held at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Thursday evening (with virtual access as well).

But despite its well-known guests (and lofty environs), the event has remained determinedly accessible.

“Except for two years that I’ve been able to find, the literary award event is free, and it’s always been open to the public,” Waide said. “And the two years that there was a charge for it, I think it was like $2, and $1 for students.”

Edward Ibur, executive director of the St. Louis Literary Award Programs, said the opportunity for the broader St. Louis community to take part in the award is central to its continuing mission. Connections between the award program and campus programming have continued to grow, as has the award’s reputation.

“When I became the executive director of the literary program, my task was to really put this more on the national map,” Ibur said, “as well as the local and regional map — [and] to really tout it as one of the top literary awards in the country. And the reality is that the list of recipients really speaks for itself. … It’s like a who’s who of amazing writers in the 20th and the 21st century.”

That list has a way of impressing potential awardees as well, Ibur told host Sarah Fenske.

“When I was driving [Stephen Sondheim] back from the airport [in 2018], he said, ‘You know, I don’t travel anymore, but when I looked at that list and I saw all the writers that were on there … I wanted to be a part of that list,’” Ibur recalled on Tuesday’s show.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Ted Ibur is the executive director of the St. Louis Literary Award Program at St. Louis University.

Waide and Ibur each shared moments that stand out from their years of interacting with such luminaries. For Ibur, the evening prior to Margaret Atwood’s award ceremony, in 2017, was especially memorable.

“This was right after the Jason Stockley verdict, and so the city was very much on edge, and I picked her up from her hotel — we were going to a dinner that evening. And dinner was starting in about 30 minutes … and we were standing outside my car and she said, ‘Can you give me a little background on the history of St. Louis?’” Ibur said.

She was especially interested in the protests against police brutality and local politics, and before long, Ibur and Atwood were late for dinner.

“I finally had to say, ‘Margaret, can we continue the conversation in the car?’” Atwood didn’t drop the idea. Said Ibur, “I know that she stayed up that night — she did a lot of research online — and she wrote just an amazing speech that was just the antidote that packed house needed. When she was done with her acceptance speech … the Sheldon really erupted.”

Ibur added that while he feels occasional anxiety about interacting with famous literary figures, time and again he finds them down to earth and kind. He pointed to Sondheim as one example.

St. Louis Literary Award has a storied history
Listen as Ted Ibur and John Waide share their reflections on the award's rich history with host Sarah Fenske.

“He [asked] me in one of our car rides, he said, ‘Ted, how do you feel about Radiohead?’ I said, ‘Well, actually Radiohead’s one of my favorite bands.’ He said, ‘You know, mine too,’” Ibur recalled. He remembers thinking, “Oh my God, I wish I knew Thom Yorke just to pass that on.”

In choosing an honoree each year, Ibur and his associates go through a lengthy process that includes taking suggestions from the public as well as many, many hours reading finalists’ work.

Ultimately, Ibur said, the goal is to choose a literary figure who fits the award’s mission, which is to recognize a living writer with a body of work that “has enriched our literary heritage by deepening our insight into the human condition and by expanding the scope of our compassion.”

Ibur added that he “can’t think of anyone who does that quite as well as Zadie Smith,” the 2021 recipient.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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