I was a sophomore in spring 2009 when I took Writing Poetry and Fiction at St. Thomas.
Several years later I remember many things about that class. I remember learning how to pay more attention to the details of my writing. I remember learning the value of rewriting, stepping away from something and coming back to make it better. I remember most of all the feedback of my professor, Lon Otto. He emphasized from day one that the most important thing was for us to improve as writers, to learn something and be better by the end of the semester than we were before.
It was no surprise to me, when I talked to Otto last week, that grades were not an especially important thing for him. (I couldn’t recall my grade in his class.) He wanted his students to tap into an intrinsic motivation to be better writers, not be motivated extrinsically by a letter he might attach to 500 words on a 3 a.m. trip to the refrigerator.
Such a teaching stance is not unique, but it is one of many, many things that have made Otto a special professor. There also is his longevity; he taught at St. Thomas his entire career, exactly 40 years. He created the award-winning student publication Summit Avenue Review, as well as helped start the ACTC Creative Writing Committee, which runs writing residencies on campus every year. He taught – when he was first hired – St. Thomas’ only creative writing course, and over the next four decades helped shepherd the department’s growth toward today’s full creative writing emphasis in the English curriculum. He was named St. Thomas’ Professor of the Year in 2003.
The immeasurable impact he had on his colleagues and thousands of students is just as, if not more, important than those. That impact will be celebrated April 8 with “A Tribute to Lon Otto,” a night of readings by Otto and St. Thomas English alumni as part of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference. The event will take place 6-9 p.m. in Terrence Murphy Hall, Thornton Auditorium (Room 260).
“He has been one of the most consistently trusted voices among us. He brought thoughtfulness and grace to many difficult discussions and decisions,” said Dr. Leslie Miller, his colleague in the English Department since 1991. “It’s impossible to describe all the ways Lon earned this respect, but a few of the qualities that inspired it were his scholarly attentiveness to detail, his abundant kindness, and his talent for cutting to the heart of any matter with direct and elegant reasoning.”
Evolution of a teaching style
The all-male College of St. Thomas hired Otto after he received his Ph.D. from Indiana University. He studied – and originally taught – literature, but his own creative writing work quickly helped make him the go-to creative writing professor. (Miller would be hired as the second creative writing professor.) Throughout his career Otto struck a balance with both literary and creative writing work and teaching.
“The creative writing experience had a definite influence on the way I teach literature. The attention to craft, the way effects are accomplished,” he said. “I never would have wanted to teach creative writing without reading a great deal of published work.”
As time went on and the department grew, Otto remained an important fixture.
“I’ve always marveled at the way he puts everyone at ease at the same time that he lets his high expectations of himself lead the way, and I suspect that his students often felt that mixture in his classrooms too,” Miller said. “We were all inspired to do our best in his presence, and we knew he was giving 150 percent right along with us.”
Otto also began working at the University of Iowa summer writing program about 15 years ago, an experience that helped shape his views on the intrinsic value of writing versus extrinsic reward of grades, he said. He took those lessons back to St. Thomas, where for four decades he left his mark with students and colleagues.
“I didn’t plan it that way (to be at St. Thomas 40 years.) I can recall after three or four years I had a colleague who had just finished 25 years, and I said, ‘How could anyone stay anywhere for 25 years?’ It seemed unthinkable to me,” Otto said. “I certainly wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did if I didn’t have relationships with my colleagues that I treasured.”
Otto continues to write in retirement, and – with celebrations such as Wednesday’s – continues to be part of the St. Thomas community. Last year also marked the first year an annual award was given in his name from Summit Avenue Review, which will build on an already rich legacy of impacting students.
“The students we’ve selected to help honor him at the tribute (Wednesday) are but a small sampling of the many he has taught over the years who have gone on to carry the torch of great writing in books, classrooms, editorial offices and beyond,” Miller said. “(It) is but a small token of how much and how many of us have benefited from having Lon among us.”