In the company of giants: the Ethel Fortner Award

I was on my way to looking up something else on Wikipedia, and I noticed a hyperlink to the Ethel Fortner Awards, which were awarded by my alma mater, St. Andrews College, to “recognize persons who have been outstanding contributors to the writing community.” (Ethel Fortner was an accomplished poet and a contributor to the St. Andrews Review.)

Back in 2000, I joined the late Frank Barrows, then the managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, and Stevie Daniels, who is an editor, writer, poet and horticulturalist, in receiving the award. I had been editor of the News & Record for two years. All three of us were graduates of St. Andrews.

We were feted at a lunch and all three were invited to give short speeches. As I sat at the podium and looked over the crowd in the Belk Center, I recognized a few faculty members who were there 26 years earlier when I was there. I wondered if they actually remembered me as a student. I was quite unremarkable; I rarely spoke in class and graduated with a middlin’ GPA.

Dr. Dick Prust, who taught philosophy, introduced me. Dick was a young professor when I was there and made an offhand comment to me after I graduated that made a pivotal difference in my life. In his introduction, he began by quoting from “The Chronicle of Divine Decadence,” which was a mimeographed monthly newsletter I sent to my suitemates and assorted St. Andrews friends for a year or two after graduation. It was a stream of consciousness update on what all we were doing and thinking. It had all the sophistication of a college boy’s diary, I’m embarrassed to say.

Stevie and Frank gave eloquent talks about writing and St. Andrews. Both had prepared texts. Stevie and Frank were – and in Stevie’s case, still is – excellent writers. I wasn’t known for my writing, and I knew it. I was there as an editor. I had a few notes and spoke for five minutes or so, making the point that St. Andrews didn’t teach me how to write; it taught me how to think, which helped me be a decent editor.

So, as I stumbled upon the Fortner entry in Wikipedia, I was agog at the other awardees. Maybe I knew who had received it before me; I don’t remember. Some I knew because we were friends at St. Andrews — Tom Patterson and Beth Copeland. Some were faculty members — W.D. White and Charles Joyner. And then those I know only by reputation: Bill Friday, Geneva Holshouser, Rolfe Neill, Roy Park, Doris Betts, John Ehle, Heather Ross Miller. It’s a breath-takingly impressive group; I’m humbled to be a small footnote in it.