Sam Smith – I was sad to learn belatedly that Professor Thomas Whitbread of the University of Texas had died last fall. After all, I had known him for about sixty years and had never grown tired of this fine poet going “Woof” in response to something I had just said.
As the obituary in the Austin Statesman noted, “Tom was invariably kind and generous to friends and students, offering delightfully quirky insights and often withholding his words showing his interest with the sparkle in his eye. Or, he might follow his escalating silence with an exclamatory onomatopoeic word. He would often be in conversation then become silent for a moment and suddenly erupt and recall entire poems or sing arias, his voice rising with dramatic effect.”
I had met him at Harvard, where he was teaching and had become a fan of our five man suite. As I wrote later:
“Outfitted with dingy, used furniture, a refrigerator stuffed in the closet next to the fireplace, and a huge abstract painting on loan from an artist who could find no other place to hang it, our living room became an attractive meeting place for friends at all hours of day and night. In fact, A-36 is probably one of the few college rooms to have been memorialized by a serious bard. Tom Whitbread, then a tutor and later a well-published poet (including in the New Yorker) and professor at the University of Texas, would visit at unpredictable hours, his arrival often smoothed by the beer that accompanied him. One early morning, after his hosts had either passed out or fallen asleep, he left a thank-you note. It read:
Terence this is stupid stuff
Smith is strewn about the floor
Dickerson is getting tough
Whitman has gone out for more
Agape has left the room
Orion lives up in the sky
I hear a thin soft voice of doom
The time has come to say good-bye.
About a decade later I would publish one of his poems, beating the New Yorker by a number of years.
We shared a premature fascination with publishing, with Tom beating me by three years in starting his family newspaper at the age of 10 and later serving as a member for 70 years of the National Amateur Press Association including two terms as president. NAPA’s constitution was as quirky as its leader including a requirement that “Each officer, elected or appointed, shall publish or contribute to an amateur paper at least quarterly. Failure to fulfill this requirement may constitute reason for removal at the discretion of the President.”
There was also a rule that every member, in order to vote, must either contribute at least 300 words a year to an amateur paper or personally hand type-set at least 1000 words.
But talented as he was, Whitbread was the sort of teacher who gave others the courage to do untried things. So when one of his books of poems came out, I wrote a verse instead of a review which said, in part,
But words taut
Make sleep naught
And thoughts fraught
So what ought
With book bought?
A poem a poop
Will be just supe. . .
And Tom didn’t mind it a bit.