Deceased October 1, 2016
Tom Whitbread, who died in October, was a man of many passions, of which the three central ones were poetry, music and sports. At Amherst he hosted the radio program “Sunday Night at the Opera,” a half hour devoted his favorite scenes and arias from the greats. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on Tennyson’s poetry under the direction of Reuben Brower, who once asked him, disconcertingly, “Just what is your thesis, Mr. Whitbread?” (In the end the thesis was well-regarded.) At Senior Class Day, Tom served as class poet.
Tom did graduate work in English at Harvard, writing a dissertation on Wallace Stevens. He went on to teach at the University of Texas—Austin, a career that concluded in August, shortly before he died. Although never part of the poetry “mainstream,” he was a fine, somewhat unregarded craftsman. He unfailingly worked in traditional forms, rhyme and stanzas, skillfully deployed to make the most of his unique moral and human qualities.
He was a devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan. On the sports front, he engaged with me in titanic tennis singles duels, and, in the old Boston Garden, we observed Cousy, Heinsohn and the young Bill Russell doing their immortal thing. One of his most affecting poems is about observing a minor league baseball game in Kansas: “Groups of farmers/Sitting and talking and watching, overalled blue,/ Eyed motley.” (“Syracuse, Kansas, Summer ’59”.)
Two epithets in closing, the first an exclamation he was fond of using to display approval, whether of a tennis shot, student paper or pitch-perfect aria:
The second from the Tennyson poem “Crossing the Bar,” where the poet imagines the music of his leave-taking:
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep,
Turns again home.
William H. Pritchard ’53