R.I.P. Lee F. Gerlach

photo of book with flower

Two USD alumni wrote separately to the magazine this spring to urge us to share news of the passing of  the man one describes as “legendary,” Professor Emeritus Lee. F. Gerlach, who died on May 30, 2017 at the age of 96.

I am writing to inform you, and the USD community — of which I am a part, as a 1973 graduate of the university — that my beloved professor and then close friend for 35 years, Lee Gerlach, passed away last summer. He was 96 years old. Lee came to what was then the Men’s College in, I think, 1966, after spending some years at UC Santa Barbara. Lee was an inspiring teacher, of the sort really that changes the direction of lives permanently and for the better, and a devoted friend to his students and many others around the country. He was also a very good and well-known poet. His poems, prose, and translations appeared in a great many magazines, and he published two books, Highwater (Handsel Books) and Selected Poems (Ohio University Press). He gave many readings of his work, including, in 1991, at the Library of Congress in Washington, being invited to do so by the Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, who also introduced Lee at the occasion.

I studied at USD for four years, majoring in English and minoring in French and Philosophy. I had many professors, but for me, and I know for many other students, USD was Lee Gerlach. Harry Thomas ’73 (BA)

Thomas wrote an afterward for Gerlach’s book, Selected Poems.

I write for two reasons: one to pass along my admiration for your writing, most recently found in the Spring 2018 edition of USD Magazine and secondly, to apprise you of the passing of a true, legendary USD professor Lee F. Gerlach .

With regard to your writing and editing of USD Magazine, I particularly liked your pieces “Chronicle of a Canticle” and “In Bloom” and the overall high quality of the writing by other staffers/contributors (Timothy McKernan in particular); and the humanity and overall personal feel and tone of the magazine. As a 1969 graduate of USD and therefore frequent reader of the magazine or its predecessors over the ensuing years, I have at times found the magazine too glitzy, too “wow,” if I can use that term, not so in recent years. In my assessment, now the magazine does a very good job in portraying with a personal feel and tone, the university as an alive, connected, centered, faith- based, scholarly and human place for students, faculty and alums. Not easy to do.

Having come to USD in 1965 on a journalism scholarship through the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Hearst Foundation to a College for Men that had no journalism department and no journalism classes (oops!), I worked instead as part of the work/study component of my scholarship as an assistant to the College’s Director of Public/University Relations Office,  Fr. I.Brent Eagen, later Monsignor and Chancellor of the Archdiocese.

As to the passing of Lee Gerlach, it is hard to encapsulate in an email or in any other written communication the extraordinary person, professor and mentor he was for me and for many others during the 24 years he was a professor at USD, from 1966 through his retirement in May of 1990.

Most remarkable was that for a man of such profound gifts and accomplishments as a scholar, poet  and teacher — Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford and star student of the great poet and author of literary Yvor Winters, to reference just two of his many incredible academic and professional honors —, Lee was totally uninterested in seeking publicity or notoriety.

Only after the prodigious efforts and literal pleading of his many admirers did Lee deign to formally publish any of his poems, preferring instead to periodically publish privately through his own press (Jackdaw Press, named after the street where lived for the past 62 years or so above Mission Hills).

Lee was also a very accomplished painter. But, above all, Lee was the most gifted teacher/professor I, and many other of his students, ever encountered. In the first lecture, in the first class I ever took from Lee (the Art of Poetry), he finished the first class lecture, tucked his books under his arm and walked quietly out of the room. Literally no one in the class moved, all were completely mesmerized by the door to learning, to the life of the mind that Lee had just opened! We just looked at each other in amazement, trying to get our brains around what had just happened, who or what this extraordinary man was.

But that was just the beginning. Those of us who had the great fortune to be Lee’s students frequently took every course he ever offered in the ensuing three years of our time at USD.

Great professors who have a passion for teaching — particularly in a small university or college setting with an ethos for compassion and the dignity of the person — have the capacity to influence in a most positive and far reaching way, students for a lifetime. That was certainly the case for me and for my extraordinary relationship with Lee Gerlach as teacher and mentor. Down through the years and as recently as mere months before he passed, Lee continued to teach me the lessons of life, what was important and what was not. In November of 2016, in a call arranged by Lee’s son Murney, Lee and I had an amazing conversation in which the then 95-year-old Lee read to me his very long but powerfully evocative poem “Placing the Past,” from a privately published volume of his poetry by the same title. He subsequently, as he promised he would, sent me the volume of his poetry. It was but one of many conversations, visits and letters Lee and I would exchange over the course of some 45 plus years after I left USD.

Lee’s story, I know has many other parallels in the inspired and inspiring teaching and mentorship of other USD professors at the College for Men and the College for Women (before the 1972 merger) and the university at large post-merger in the impact these professors in this special small college/small university setting had on their students and continue to have on USD students.

In essence, Lee’s story is not relegated to the obscurity of 1991, but it is a metaphor for the best the university has to offer to today’s students. For me, it is very much the answer to the question of “why USD?” And, lest we forget, USD is extraordinarily lucky to have attracted the kind of students and faculty, who together can have such a positive, lifelong influence on their respective lives.

I can personally attest from my own academic experience post USD (graduate/fellowship study at the University of Pennsylvania and law school at Georgetown University Law Center) that other institutions while great and renowned in their own right, did not hold a candle to the special education and lifelong lessons I received at USD, and in particular, through the inspiring teaching of Lee F. Gerlach. — Jack Kennedy ’69 (BA)



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