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Elder statesman

January 30, 2017 In Lakeland University Blog
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Some people are fortunate enough to make a living doing the thing they love most.

Karl Elder, Lakeland’s Jacob and Lucile Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and Poet in Residence, has carved out a distinguished career doing two of the things he loves most.

“I’m so fortunate to enjoy two arts,” he said. “I get to make pictures with words, and I get to work with young people and help them reach their capacity to think, imagine and learn.”

Elder was honored on Friday night, when he became the 13th member of Lakeland’s Fine Arts Gallery of Distinction. Elder was nominated for this honor by one or more peers, and was the first addition to the Fine Arts Gallery of Distinction since 2012.

More than 50 current and former students, faculty and staff attended the ceremony in the Bradley Gallery. Current students Karalee Manis and Danielle Livingston shared their perspective of Elder’s impact, as did longtime faculty colleague and friend, Professor of Writing Jeff Elzinga, who presented Elder his plaque. After receiving the plaque, Elder introduced members of his family who attended the ceremony, then read a number of pieces of his work, as well as a piece by the late Mark Strand, a Pulitzer-winning Poet Laureate of the U.S.

“Karl has obviously contributed tremendously to Lakeland, and has impacted countless students’ lives,” said Nate Lowe, dean of the School of Humanities and Fine Arts. “He has also impacted the national literary scene.”

Said Elder of the honor: “What I keep thinking is, it’s so great to have one’s colleagues recognize one for one’s work.”

Elder, in his 37th year at Lakeland, has had 11 books published and has written, in his estimation, more than 1,000 poems. He has also been the driving force behind Lakeland’s annual Great Lakes Writers Festival, which has attracted noted authors to campus for more than two decades, and the literary publication, “SEEMS.”

He has won numerous regional and national awards, including the prestigious Pushcart Prize for his poetry and the Lakeland Outstanding Teacher Award.

As a professor, he cherishes the letters and emails he receives from students he worked with.

“It’s not that I have sought to serve as a mentor, but people keep telling me they consider me one,” Elder said. “I guess I’m good at reading people, at knowing what their strengths are and playing off that.”

Elder knows the strengths of poems, too, but reading them can be as challenging as figuring out the most complicated human being. He often goes back repeatedly to poetry, both his own and that of others, to tweak or analyze or poke and prod. There are about 50 of his own poems that he keeps revisiting, trying to get just right.

For the past three years, Elder has found himself digging and re-digging into the Richard Wilbur piece, “Anterooms.” He’s read it hundreds of times, but he always seems to find something fresh, something just a little different than before.

“Formally, it’s a wonder,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s a great portrait of the human condition, the capacity to recognize not only our mortality, but our ability to have hope that comes from our imagination.”

Elder still has plenty of hope, and loads of imagination, though he said with a smile that his best days as a poet are probably behind him.

Of course, there is still a lot of reading to do – of students and poems alike – and Elder plans to keep doing both at LU. He came here in 1979, after teaching at Southwest Missouri State University, a place big and impersonal enough that he once had to teach a class using a textbook chosen by someone higher up on the academic org chart than him.

“I wanted my kids to grow up in a community like this,” he said of his two boys, who have now given him two grandchildren. “And for me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to be gregarious in a small community than in a big one.”

Elder is gregarious, alright, and passionate as ever. Bring up something that excites him, and his eyes bug and his jaw slacks in child-like wonder.

As the years go by, he gets the “R” question from time to time, but retirement isn’t going to happen any time soon. Heck, the day might never come.

“I like to say I’ll retire when my forehead hits the desk,” he said.

Lakeland's Fine Arts Gallery of Distinction

  • Edgar Thiessen, music, inducted in 1992
  • Kenneth Schilling, music, inducted in 1992
  • Zane Pautz, music, inducted in 1992
  • Harry Ellerbusch, music, inducted in 1992
  • Hellen Strassburger Boatwright, music, inducted in 1992
  • Brenda Pussel Schleunes, theatre, inducted in 1992
  • Elmer Ott, theatre, inducted in 1992
  • Edmund Worthman, art, inducted in 1992
  • Susan Zurbucken, theatre, inducted in 1993
  • Eugene C. Jaberg, theatre, inducted in 1993
  • James Crawford, theatre, inducted in 2012
  • Lew Schmidt, music, inducted in 2012
  • Karl Elder, writing, inducted in 2016

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