After nearly three decades of working at Oakland University, English Professor Edward Haworth Hoeppner is retiring. On Tuesday, Nov. 10, he had a farewell reading in Dodge Hall, where nearly 100 students and faculty — both past and present — came to listen to his poetry and to bid him farewell.
Hoeppner’s Early Life
At 64 years old, Hoeppner has done a lot in his life. He grew up in Winona, Minnesota on the Mississippi River and studied for a year to become a priest at St. Mary’s University. When he decided that wasn’t the right path for him, he started to focus on English and Creative Writing.
“My high school English teacher first got me really interested in writing. It was illegal. We used to go to his house and drink beer and talk literature and that continued through college,” Hoeppner said with a laugh.
His teacher also got him interested in hitch-hiking. Hoeppner hoped on freight trains and traveled across the country, stretching from Maine to California. During this time, he also did volunteer work teaching grade school and driving the school bus in southeastern Colorado.
After graduating college, Hoeppner decided to apply to graduate school at the University of Iowa. He took the Ph.D. program instead of the workshops.
“My stuff wasn’t up to speed,” he explained. “I didn’t know a lot of what was going on in contemporary writing. I had a lot to learn. Most of which I had to learn by reading and doing.”
While in Iowa, he taught as a Teacher Assistant in addition to working on his own poetry. Then, a colleague of his told him of a job opportunity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama teaching creative writing to schizophrenic teenagers and hearing and speech impaired seniors at Bryce Hospital. He jumped at the offer and moved there. During his time in Alabama, he met his wife.
“My wife, it turns out, went to the same college I went to, though she was three years behind me,” Hoeppner said wistfully. “I think we met once in college, but someone had heard that two people from Winona were running around in Tuscaloosa, so someone hooked us up on a date and we got married in ‘82.”
Finding a Second Home at Oakland University
By the late 1980s, Hoeppner was anxious to head back to the Midwest where he grew up. He sent out 273 job applications to schools in Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota the year he was hired at OU. He still remembered the day he was interviewed by Oakland University at the Modern Language Association Conference in San Francisco.
“It was raining and I had gotten lost. So, I was late to the Oakland interview and I was wet,” he started. “They asked me how the convention was going and I sat down and blurted out ‘I just gave the worst interview a human being could possibly give.’ I told them to story of the interview, which was funny in a sad kind of way.” Apparently, that story was what made him stand out and why Oakland University hired him.
“I was a recovering alcoholic finding my feet, who needed a chance. Oakland offered me that chance,” he said.
He started working at OU in 1988, but in 1991 his wife accepted a job offer at Aquinas College and they moved from Oakland County to Grand Rapids, Michigan. The move didn’t stop Hoeppner from teaching at Oakland University. Instead, he started commuting back and forth from his home to the college.
“I’ve been renting a room for the last ten to twelve years,” Hoeppner explained. “I stay over Tuesday and Wednesday night, and then go back home.”
The End of an Era
If he didn’t have the long commute, he figures it would stay for another year or two. However, his age plays another key role in his retirement.
“When you’re a teacher – at least he way I teach – a lot of it requires my mind to be quick on its feet. I don’t feel as dynamic in front of the classroom as I used to,” he said.
Oakland University has been a unique place for Hoeppner to work. He greatly appreciated and valued the English department, praising its supportive environment and the wonderful colleagues he was able to work with. He also explained that he will miss the act of teaching as well.
“I’ll walk out of a class and think ‘that’s the last time I’ll teach Hemingway.’ Sometimes it’s a relief: “it’s the last time I’ll teach Ezra Pound,’ who has always been over my head,” he joked.
However, it is the students he will miss the most.
“It’s a real privilege for me to be able to teach the students at Oakland. We have good students here, and Oakland is fortunate with the students it attracts,” he said humbly. “By and large the students appreciate education. They don’t have a sense of entitlement. People are earnest. They seem straight forward and intent upon getting an education and appreciate of the chance to get to do that.”
Colleagues’ thoughts about Hoeppner
Kevin T. Grimm, Associate Professor and Department Chair
“I remember when we hired Ed Hayworth Hoeppner. I was in my first year as a junior faculty member. I looked around at my colleagues and I thought ‘I’m the most nervous person in this room.’ The first question came, and it was directed at Ed. It was about how he would teach the general education course. Once the question was asked, there was a pause, and I immediately thought two things: First that I am definitely the most nervous, and secondly that we have to hire this guy, because he paused. It wasn’t a nervous pause or a ‘well, they surprised me with that question’ pause. It was a thoughtful, considerate pause. It showed he was actually listening carefully to the question, and when he spoke he actually answered it. Directly. He listens carefully, he thinks deeply, and then he speaks. As a teacher, as a colleague, and as a poet.”
Annette Gilson, Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing
“When I first came to Oakland, I was amazed by him because he was the only person teaching creative writing, and he had done more independent studies than anybody else combined. That was an incredible act of generosity on his part, and his students are lucky to have him as a teacher. In person, he’s shy and modest, but the classroom he is so generous and wants so badly to connect and communicate with the students, he completely opens up. He is brilliant and insightful, and we cannot replace him. My sense of personal and professional loss is huge. He has earned the right to some time off to immerse himself in poetry, and I wish him the best.”
Kellie Fullan, 2015 Graduate, BA in English and Creative Writing
“The first time I met Professor Hoeppner, I clearly remember was how open he was as he introduced himself with a condensed summary of his life and struggles. He put everything out in the open in just a few minutes, which was something that I hadn’t experienced, and have yet to experienced again, outside of his class(es) that I was in. Since then, I always felt at ease when around him. He has a sort of calm aura and just general good vibes. Honestly, there isn’t enough space, and there aren’t enough words for me to properly express how much of a positive influence Professor Hoeppner has had on me and how much my time with him means to me. He is a very open, wise, and warm-hearted person who wants the best for his students (as students and as individuals) and I am so glad to have had the chance to get to know him and learn from him in the ways that I did. Upon his leaving I wish him the best with his retirement and that he, as well as his family, have long, happy, healthy lives.”
Jason Storms, 2013 Graduate, BA in English
“I met Ed my first year at OU. I visited his office because I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to go about learning the craft. He was very generous, giving me feedback on a few poems and a list of poets to check out from the library. I probably spent as much time in his office each week as I spent in class. He has such deep intelligence and knowledge that his classes always unfolded very organically. His immense gifts as a writer gave him such an edge in teaching literature. Ed taught all of us not just what a poem is or says, but what how to possess it personally and emotionally. Once when he and I sat in his office talking about Rilke, Ed read a passage from the poem, “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.” I remember how his voice snagged and buckled under the poem’s sadness. It was clear how emotionally attuned Ed is to what he reads. Having him as a mentor and a friend have meant so much to me. I wish him nothing but the best. His departure is a huge loss for the department, but he leaves behind a rich legacy of accomplished writers and changed humans.”
Written by Dani Cojocari. Originally published in The Oakland Post on November 10, 2015