SUU In View (Alumni Magazine - Spring 2003)
Distinguished SUU poet and professor retires
The nickname, "the Pig Poet of Paragonah" conjures up several images of early childhood living on a farm. Images of "slopping the hogs" and trying to imagine why anyone would want to be called the Pig Poet, and just how much could one say in rhyming verse about those creatures is beyond most of us. It doesn't become clear until later that the "title" and the "subject" of such lyrical observation really had little to do with one another.
Come January 6, 2003, for the first time in 32 years David Lee will not be teaching classes at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. He will, however maintain an office on campus until June. Utah's Poet Laureate, legendary professor of literature and chair of the English Department for the past 25 years at SUU recently announced his retirement. "It's been 32 great years. It's been a great run," said Lee. Among his many achievements are a dozen books, many teaching awards and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Born In Post, Texas, not too far from Midland, Lee pursued interests in boxing, baseball and the ministry before turning to literature. Upon completion of his PHD in British Literature from the University of Utah, he accepted a teaching position in Cedar City at what was then called Southern Utah State College.
"I went there to spend one year, two at the most," said Lee. "But one year became another and another. I fell in love with the school." It was during the early years when Lee commuted from Paragonah where he raised pigs and began writing verse about life in a rural setting that he was nicknamed "the Pig Poet of Paragonah." Through his use of recurring characters such as Ellis, Rufus and LaVerene, Lee painted his portrait of life in a small town in America. These writings have been compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.
When you meet David Lee, you are immediately impressed with his warm engaging manner and are put at ease by his impeccable southern charm and wit. He is soft in speech, yet passionate about all he does. These character qualities are incorporated into his teaching philosophy-be prepared, be passionate about the material, and show the students you care about them. That care is reciprocated by his students. Of Lee, one of his students, SUU sophomore Tiffany Whitney says, "He's one of the most amazing teachers I've ever had. He's made me love poetry." She credits him with revealing to her a "whole new world of language. Even though he is retiring, he's full of life."
Governor Mike Leavitt named Lee Utah's first Poet Laureate on January 24, 1997. Since that time, in addition to performing his duties at SUU, he has spoken extensively throughout the state and the nation. While receiving no salary as Poet Laureate, the Utah Arts Council funded his travel expenses and coordinated his travel schedule for the first two years. He made 50 appearances the first year and 70 the second. He vowed to visit every high school in Utah-a very worthy goal until funding dried up in 1999. As his visits in Utah waned, his invitations throughout the country increased as did his national reputation. Last year, Lee was one of several finalists being considered to become the Poet Laureate of the United States. Fellow Texan, First Lady Laura Bush invited him to the National Book Festival in Washington. From the little dusty panhandle town of Post, Texas, to a sterling career at SUU positively influencing the lives of literally thousands of students, to The White House, David Lee has traveled a path to greatness that few have traveled. His influence and positive voice will be sorely missed by students, faculty, staff and administration of Southern Utah University.