A Celebration of Fred Chappell
As an avid fiction and poetry reader, I am ashamed to admit that I did not know of the legacy of Fred Chappell. After hearing of the Fredfest! Hosted by The UNCG MFA Writing Program and the UNCG Class of 1952, my curious nature took over and I had to know the man being celebrated. I did a little digging and discovered the extensive and versatile career of poet and writer, Fred Chappell. His notoriety is well-documented, having won numerous awards such as the T.S. Eliot Prize, Bollingen Prize and attaining the honor of being North Carolina’s Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2002. After attending the event held in the UNCG Alumni House, I learned about a different facet of Fred Chappell: his enduring influence as a professor.
That Sunday afternoon the cobbled street of College Avenue at the UNCG Alumni House drizzled with rain. A cheerless pall adorning the sky made the warmth of the Alumni House all the more enticing. Walking into the entryway, numerous guests silently chatted, a tranquil anticipation filling the room. At first glance, the small crowd gave me the impression that maybe Fred Chappell was not as influential and well-known as I thought he was. But after hearing the gracious alumni panel of his former students, I came to realize that I was completely wrong.
These students, Quinn Dalton, Julie Funderburk, Drew Perry and Rhett Iseman Trull, were positively elated to share fond memories of their teacher. Fred Chappell himself was quietly present on the sideline with his wife Susan humbly listening to the praise and stories from his former students. His soft smiles and knowing nod demonstrated his attentiveness and care.
Most of the questions asked of the panel were to delve into their personal memories and insights of Chappell and how he affected and continues to influence their lives.
Quinn Dalton, an accomplished writer of several books such as “Midnight Bowling,” had a lot to say about Chappell. She ended her first response with a distinctive quote, that she is a “student of Fred Chappell for life.” Not many educators have former students that can declare such words, but after attending this event, I see that Fred Chappell is more than just a teacher. He’s an influential lifetime presence.
Letters are the predominant way Fred has continued to be involved in alumni lives. His consistent contact with former students, not just the ones in attendance, is through letters. He forms a meaningful relationship by carefully crafting his words to tailor his responses to the specific person.
Rhett Iseman Trull, an artful poet, described Chappell’s continued involvement not only in her professional work but her family life as well. She and her husband founded a poetry journal called Cavewall in 2007 and, like all newborn projects, they aspired for recognition. Fred Chappell submitted several poems for the publication in an effort to support one of his many students. The time taken out to provide a personal contribution is another demonstration of his steadfast compassion. Apart from professional guidance, he takes an interest in his students’ personal lives. Not only did he write a personalized poem for her cat, he took the time to give both her young daughters individualized feedback on their beginning poetry, which Trull shared with cheerful tears: “Not every student can say they’ve known a teacher with this much devotion. His students are extremely fortunate.”
His versatile writing skills make him an invaluable resource for aspiring and established writers. His fiction displays a remarkable understanding of how character and setting is crucial to bringing a story to life. His former student Drew Perry described his advice as extremely influential to his creative process, telling him, “If you don’t know what your character would have for breakfast or what shoes they would wear, you essentially don’t know the character.”
A single alumni panel illuminated the true power and presence of Fred Chappell as a teacher and mentor. His influence will continue to inspire his students as well as current students who are just learning about his life and writing.
He truly is a man beyond words.