Farewell, George Garrett

The final chapter in the colorful life of critically acclaimed novelist, essayist, and former Virginia Poet Laureate, UVA writing professor George Garrett, was written Sunday night. Seventy-eight-year-old Garrett died at his Rugby Road home "very peacefully," says his wife, Susan, and surrounded by his family including his three children and two grandchildren. Garrett had been battling bladder cancer for a year and a half.

If Garrett is known and respected internationally for his literary works, he may be best remembered by some as the professor who launched 1,000 writers– or maybe more. And they weren't all UVA students. Although Garrett taught at UVA in the 1960s, he left after the University learned he hadn't completed his dissertation for his Ph.D at Princeton– a fact he'd later ruefully joke about in an interview. After teaching stints at several other schools and time working in Hollywood, Garrett made a triumphant return to UVA in 1984. (Princeton had awarded him his degree after determining his 1971 novel, Death of the Fox, qualified as a dissertation.)

UVA students were grateful Garrett came full circle.

"If he liked your work, he'd do anything for you," says Jason Coleman, who studied under Garrett in UVA's MFA program in 1997 and 1998. Garrett, Coleman says, was "the textbook version of being generous with other writers."

Coleman's experience with Garrett echoes that of Hook writer Dave McNair, who studied under Garrett in the early 1990s. Garrett taught his graduate classes in his home, McNair recalls, and looked out for his students in a variety of ways.

"He'd hire me to drive him to readings," McNair recalls. Although McNair says Garrett could have driven himself, "He'd pay me $150. He kept me afloat. I got a lot of writing done in those hotels."

McNair also learned the hard way that Garrett prized a good story.

"Once, he was at a reading I gave," says McNair. "I had gas, I was reading, and I burped. A few weeks later," he laughs, "I kept hearing about the reading at which I farted. It was George rewriting history."
McNair says he fought for a while to set the record straight, but Garrett's storytelling charisma won out. "It was a much better story than me burping," McNair admits.

Garrett's considerable oral storytelling skills translated well– and frequently– to written works. In addition to nearly a dozen novels, Garrett penned plays, short stories and poetry.

That variety of genres, McNair believes, might explain why Garrett didn't receive popular success to equal his critical success. (Although one of his former students humorously predicted Garrett's fame might soar following his death.) "You couldn't categorize him," says McNair, citing Garrett's poetry as among his favorite of Garrett's works. "They're really funny, kind of savage," says McNair.

Several of Garrett's friends and colleagues did not immediately return the Hook's Memorial Day call, but it's clear McNair is not the only one who admired Garrett's skills. In addition to numerous prestigious writing awards, in 2002, Garrett was named Poet Laureate of Virginia, a role in which he served for two years.

Garrett's funeral will be held on June 7 at 11am at St. Paul's Memorial Church. Susan Garrett says a larger memorial service will be conducted "near fall," and says she hopes people will remember the "joy, laughter and enthusiasm that he had."


I'll remember.

My favorite George Garrett story is one he told about returning to C'ville after several years' absence. Having moved back into his old neighborhood, George took a walk one day and his neighbor passed by and said, "How've you been George? Haven't seen you in a while." The best part of the story was how George would laugh at its telling. We'll miss you, George.