James L. Woodress Jr. '38

Deceased May 19, 2011
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James L. "Jim" Woodress Jr.

In 1988, Jim foresaw America of a century later as “still crippled by the functionally illiterate,” with SAT scores “distressingly low,” with teachers choosing seniority promotions over merit and with professors still making “less than computer programmers.”

That prophesy still looked good 23 years after he made it in our 50th reunion book. A professor known for his dedication to students, Jim also ridiculed the system, quoting Mark Twain: “In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Jim, who died May 19, 2011, aged 94, at his retirement home in Pomona, Calif., is remembered, of course, for his superb biography of Willa Cather. Published in 1987 by the University of Nebraska, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, still stands for its encompassing portrait of the great American novelist.

Margaret O’Connor, who got a Cather doctorate under Jim and became a close friend, said that Jim admired Cather for the carefulness of her craft and wrote the biography because a better one was needed and he was offered the job.

As a young reporter for United Press, Jim had looked at the “real world” as contrasted to his later ivory tower home in various states, mostly California, and abroad. He and his wife, Roberta Wilson, who predeceased him, roamed the world. They became lifelong mentors of the daughter (then a child) of an Italian professor he met in Italy during the war. He was the proud baker of good bread and an impassioned vegetable gardener. He played tennis and drove cars deep into old age.

In replying to a birthday card a year ago, Jim said he had outlived most relatives and friends of his age and hoped a friend was “kidding” who said statistics showed he could live to over 100.

George Bria ’38