Above, Stafford’s book “Traveling through the Dark” sits next to the original hand-written 1956 version of the poem of the same name. Photo by Aidan D'Anna

A tribute to LC’s late professor and revered poet William Stafford

Though he passed away in 1993, Lewis & Clark still honors William Stafford as one of the most influential poets and professors of its community. Born in 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas, Stafford did not write a poem until 1937 — his senior year of college. After receiving mild acclaim from his writing professors and a small publication in New Mexico, Stafford continued to write, casually pursuing his interest in English and poetry in particular. 

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, Stafford petitioned his local draft board, claiming he could not fight because he was a devoted pacifist. In Jan. 1942, he was granted conscientious objector status, meaning he would not see combat but would be interned in four different Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps from 1942 to 1946. During those years, Stafford leaned into his pacifism, writing prolific anti-war accounts, including his master’s thesis at the University of Kansas which was later published as the book “Down in my Heart” in 1947. 

That same year, after recruitment by then-President Morgan Odell, Stafford accepted a teaching position at LC. Though he took several sabbaticals, most notably from 1950 to 54 to complete his doctorate at the acclaimed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he remained as a tenured faculty member until 1979. 

During his tenure in LC’s English department, Stafford won the National Book Award for his 1962 book “Traveling through the Dark” and was appointed in 1970 to a one-year term as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (a title later known as the National Poet Laureate). In 1974, he was appointed by Governor Tom McCall to be Oregon’s fourth poet laureate, a position he held until 1989. 

Though he enjoyed his daily routine of writing during “the deliciously solitary hours of four to seven a.m.,” according to the Chronicle Magazine, and completing his daily goal of at least one good page of writing a day (he successfully completed 20,000 pages in a row), Stafford enjoyed teaching most of all. 

During his time on Palatine Hill, approximately 2,000 students had the pleasure of experiencing his teaching style that “avoided both praise and blame” according to the Chronicle Magazine and the egalitarian classroom experience that grew out of his committed pacifism. In a piece for the 2013 issue of the Chronicle Paulann Petersen, the Oregon poet laureate who succeeded Stafford described him as “a person of remarkable conscience and conduct, a man whose every word and action bore witness to his unswerving belief in the nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

In 2008, 15 years after Stafford’s death, Associate Professor and Director Kim Stafford at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling donated to LC his father’s entire collection of drafts, manuscripts, notes and journals, as well as over 12,000 negatives of photos he had taken for fellow poets. Kim was also appointed as Oregon’s poet laureate in 2018. This extensive collection quickly evolved into the William Stafford archives, the first-ever digitized collection of a 20th century poet. 

LC students can visit Watzek’s digital collections website and browse the two books, 118 poems and 50 audio recordings of this vibrant author, poet, mentor and member of the LC community.

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