Thursday, November 15, 2018

John McPhee: First Knight Fellow in 1972

James L. Knight '29, portrait
The Knight Fellow usually visits in the early part of the calendar year, so it has now been nearly fifty years that this much-anticipated program came to WRA. The Knight Fellow generally is here for a few days and has a chance to visit classes, speak to the students, and give two or three programs in the Chapel. The Knight Fellow program originated with James L. Knight ’29, who was one of the principals at the Knight-Ridder newspapers. He was an Akron man who was later persuaded to undertake the funding for our Knight Fine Arts Center (1986), a much-used facility that is now the home of the Wang Innovation Center.
Headmaster Henry P. Briggs, Headmaster from 1967-1976
His leadership brought the Knight Fellowship program to WRA
 But in 1971, Headmaster Henry P. Briggs was instrumental in convincing Mr. &  Mrs. Knight to endow the annual lecture series that would be called the Knight Fellowship. This fund is called the James L. Knight & Mary Ann Knight Fund.

James L. Knight '29, in 1985 at the groundbreaking
for the Knight Fine Arts Center (KFAC)
A faculty committee including William Danforth ’34 and Lucien Bergeron of the English department, invited John McPhee to WRA. McFee is author of The Headmaster (1966), a book about Deerfield Academy’s legendary Frank Boyden, and Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), among a long list of books, many of which began on the pages of The New Yorker magazine. I believe that the contact was made through McPhee’s sister, Lolly Burton, who was living in Hudson with her husband, Tyler, and whose sons, Spencer Burton '69, Tyler Burton III '74, and Angus McPhee Burton, who would graduate from WRA in 1976. So, the first Knight Fellow was booked.

John McPhee became a “writer in residence” at WRA in April, 1972, and met with classes over a three day period in which he was able to give students “some tips on writing.” In his public talks, McPhee discussed his own method for writing, but admitted he was pleased to be on campus among so many interesting people when he ordinarily spends “so much time working alone.” Faculty members Lucien Bergeron and Richard Baker pronounced the Knight Fellowship program a success and that McPhee left a “very, very positive impression.” Widely considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction, John McPhee is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the winner of that award in 1999 for his book, Annals of the Former World. He has been a teacher of creative writing at Princeton University since 1974 and has had some of this country’s most noted journalists and writers as his students. It is interesting to note that nearly 88 years old, John Angus McPhee still lives and writes in his native Princeton, New Jersey. The Knight Fellowship program continues to entertain and enlighten students here at Western Reserve Academy. Another such program is likely to be on board in 2019.