Born in New York City and raised in rural North Caldwell, N.J., Wilbur started at Amherst as the famous Hurricane of 1938 struck. He never forgot witnessing the destruction from North dormitory as the maples of College Grove “lay down” one by one from the gusts, as he recalled to Professor of English David R. Sofield, with whom he taught poetry courses at Amherst.
Sofield and his wife, Professor of Psychology Lisa Raskin, were close friends with the Wilburs, and Wilbur and Sofield regularly played tennis together. Over time, Wilbur shared many stories with Sofield about his Amherst years. An English major, Wilbur pledged Chi Psi, which was full of football players. Thinking he should also try athletics, Wilbur took up boxing. When he came to the Chi Psi house one day with a black eye from sparring at the gym, a fraternity brother pulled him aside and said, “We didn’t pledge you for athletics. We pledged you to bring up our grade point average.”
Wilbur particularly admired Amherst English professors Theodore Baird, George Armour Craig, George Roy Elliot and George Whicher. As he reminisced in a 2009 interview for the College’s website, “They all, bless them, took me seriously as a writer of poems. They told me what was wrong with what I was doing and how I could make it better, as well as what I ought to read in order to be properly inspired.”
In 1980, Wilbur wrote a reminiscence of the teachers who influenced him: “Like his great senior colleague, Theodore Baird, Armour Craig was forever asking the embarrassing question, ‘What do you mean?’ That demand for self-questioning/precision has been part of my conscience for forty years now, and if I have ever written a true and clear line or sentence, there are two Amherst teachers to whom credit is due.”
Wilbur was chairman of The Amherst Student. His most famous editorial ran on the front page the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, inspiring his classmates while slipping in a dig at rival Williams College. It ran on the front page, in large type, under the all-caps headline, “NOW THAT WE ARE IN IT.”
Wrote Wilbur: “We needn’t rhapsodize over our intervention like the editor of the Williams Record, but we should suppress our obstructing doubts ... confining our thoughts to the job before us, and to the post-war world, which it will be our great pleasure to put together. Now that we are fighting, what is needed is unanimity and determined action. … If we feel any allegiance to the race in general, we will strive to make the post-war world more hopeful and less combustive than the world of the past twenty years, to which we are now bidding a noisy farewell.”
Upon graduation in 1942, just after marrying Charlee, Wilbur enlisted and served with the 36th Army at Cassio and Anzio in Italy, in the southern invasion of France, and along the Siegfried Line in Germany. “He experienced heavy shelling, and often,” said Sofield. “He lost many good friends.” Poetry became a way to escape the trauma of the foxhole.
After the war, Wilbur received a master’s from Harvard, forged a friendship with Robert Frost and published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes. Throughout his illustrious life—he published some 30 books of poetry, essay collections and translations, and won some 20 prizes, including the National Book Award for Poetry, the Bollingen Award for Poetry and the Drama Desk Special Award—Wilbur retained his strong ties to Amherst.