Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published March 09 2013
Friends hope to start endowment in honor of UND Writers Conference founderGRAND FORKS If John Little could be here to wrangle the 44th edition of the University of North Dakota Writers Conference he created all those years ago, he probably would spend this week and next fretting about getting deals on bulk liquor and cheese for after-parties, persuading a junior English major that she certainly could introduce a Pulitzer Prize winner — and shoveling snow from his old topless Cadillac convertible so he’d be ready to pick up writers arriving at the airport.
He would drawl nice things about the writers who had won this prize or that but still agreed to come to North Dakota in winter to talk about what they had written and how.
And he would be pleased, probably, to know that old friends and colleagues were chipping in for a memorial fund, a John Little Memorial Endowment, which would provide a modest annual stipend to bring a fiction writer to campus each year in his name.
A native of Mississippi who was schooled there and in Arkansas, Little came to Grand Forks in 1969 to teach English at UND. He soon took on additional duties, to elevate local appreciation for blues music and catfish and to soften winter’s edge on the High Plains by luring big-time writers here for a night or two of literary appreciation and sometimes rowdy fun.
He turned the conference over to others after 1990, wrote the Whopper John fishing columns for the Herald, continued to spend summer weeks fishing and camping with his sons at Lake Sakakawea, endured the Red River flood of 1997 and retired from UND in 1998, returning to Mississippi to write, fish and listen to down-home jazz and blues. People there must have been surprised to hear that his Southern accent had, if anything, deepened in his years up north.
He died in 2002, mourned by many people who had learned through him to appreciate the writing of Eudora Welty (she had been one of his teachers!) or Raymond Carver, or through him to dare attempt a short story, a collection of poems, even a novel.
“He gave a great gift to UND, the state and the region,” said Kathy Coudle King, who in 1993 earned a master’s degree in English at UND and now teaches composition in the department.
“You could rub elbows with a Pulitzer Prize winner or visit over drinks with a Nobel laureate,” she said. “And it’s free! It has lasted more than four decades now, and it would be a crying shame to forget who started it and the spirit with which it was begun.”
This year’s UND Writers Conference opens March 19. In late January, King wrote to fellow English Department alumni, urging them to contribute to the memorial endowment.
“For one delicious week in March, they will come — the writers, the book lovers, the poetry seekers, the lovers of ideas and discussion,” she wrote. “They will descend upon the UND Memorial Union and take their seats at the Chester Fritz Auditorium... And we will say, ‘I am so lucky to be in North Dakota.’ ”
One of her own best memories: having dinner with playwright August Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.
Organizers are hoping eventually to build an endowment of $100,000. The first hurdle they must cross is $25,000, the minimum amount needed to establish an endowment with the UND Foundation, King said.
“It’s almost at $21,000 right now,” she said. “With a little more push, it looks like we’ll make it.”
It costs considerably more to put the conference on now than it did when Little persuaded a few of his Southern writer friends to come to Grand Forks with promises of modest stipends and a place to sleep.
“With marketing and other costs, you can’t do it on a shoestring,” King said, and interest from a respectable endowment would help bring a marquee fiction writer to campus each year.
The list of famous writers who have read from their work, joined panels to discuss writing and offered advice and encouragement (and sometimes gentle get-real counseling) to aspiring writers is beyond impressive: Truman Capote, James Dickey, Norman Mailer, Alice Walker, Tom Wolfe, Louise Erdrich, Susan Sontag... and on and on.
In 1974, Little reunited at UND the “Beat Poets” of the 1950s, including Allen Ginsberg. The author of “Howl” sat on a stool at a Grand Forks coffee shop and chatted with the locals.
Mike Burbach, a former editor of the Dakota Student and now editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, credits Little and his conferences in the early 1980s with expanding the depth and range of his literary awareness.
“How else, without the Writers Conference, would a shy kid from Pembina end up six inches from Norman Mailer, listening to him tell stories?” Burbach asked at the time of Little’s retirement.
Little’s seminal role has been acknowledged several times in recent years, including with the dedication of a Red River boat ramp in his honor in 2006. The idea for an endowment surfaced in 2009, when members of the North Dakota Playwrights Co-op presented eight short plays they had written based on Little’s fishing columns in the newspaper.
“When someone does something this unique, their memory shouldn’t fade away,” King said.
“There are busts of people all over campus,” she said. “John didn’t build a building. He built a conference for writers, for readers and thinkers, and it keeps happening every year. We received a donation last week from someone who included a little poem she had written many years ago when she was a student.
“He touched a lot of people. He inspired a lot of writers.”
On the Web: www.undwritersconference.org.