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Thursday, May 23, 2024

In Memoriam: Revered author, UNCW professor Philip Gerard to be celebrated this month

Philip Gerard passed away Nov. 7, 2022. A celebration of his life will be held Dec. 10 at Cameron Art Museum. (Courtesy Jill Gerard)

WILMINGTON — It was a long and winding road that brought Philip Gerard to Wilmington, North Carolina. But a road well worth traveling.  

Though his journey came to an end Nov. 7, the well-regarded writer and UNCW professor, husband, and father will be celebrated in a public event hosted at Cameron Art Museum on Dec. 10.

On a path that began in Wilmington, Delaware, Philip traversed the country several times over, with a long stay in Arizona, where he received his master of fine arts in creative writing and inspired his devotion to teaching. He traveled and wrote from Illinois to Vermont, the latter of which included time at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where he served as a “waiter,” one of the most coveted scholarships granted there, and later returned as faculty.

Philip’s first writing job was for the local paper in Newark, Delaware, where his boss told him to “get a story.” He jumped out of planes with the Marines. He performed as a clown with the Clyde Beatty Brothers Circus.

“That was the first time I got to be the person go goes back stage,” he said. “I got to see behind the scenes and that set me on my path to be a writer.”

In the late Eighties, when the road led him to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Philip knew he was home. 

It was here where inspiration to write Cape Fear Rising” — a book that changed the course of his career — was born.

It was here Philip would help mold a university’s creative writing program waiting to burst forth with a group of colleagues ready to build something greater than themselves.

And, eventually, it was here Philip and I made a life together.

We met in the mountains of North Carolina. A love for writing took us each to Wildacres — a magical place in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its focus to promote peace and connection grounded us in its mission: “We are all connected; to each other, to our past and to this land. We are all responsible for the betterment of those relations.”

Our friendship developed over the years and we recognized our lives were meant for each other. Together, we wrote, taught, traveled, sailed, and inspired each other to be our best. 

Philip loved to sail, a hobby he took up in Arizona, with a small boat on a reservoir and a book in his hand. He learned to manage the lines and sails, turn into the wind and tack. Many years later, with his foot on the wheel, a cap shading his eyes, he would hoist the sails and settle back. He taught me about wind and currents and how to read the clouds. 

Years were spent on the water — racing, day-sailing, and making longer runs up the coast. A highlight of his life was taking a turn crewing on the Pride of Baltimore with his former student, Captain Jamie Trost.

Among writing and playing music, Philip Gerard loved sailing. (Courtesy Jill Gerard)

Like so many, he followed the road to a place that would become home because of a job.

“Philip arrived at UNCW in 1989 and quickly turned a fledgling professional and creative writing curriculum into a well-organized, well-administered, and very popular concentration within the English major,” Mark Cox, chair of the creative writing department, said. “As the track grew and other creative writing faculty were hired, he subsequently was the chief force behind the planning, establishment, and coordination of UNCW’s MFA program in 1996.” 

Philip championed the program to becoming an independent department in 1999 and for seven years acted as department chair. His professional instincts were impeccable, his understanding of academic politics and policy vast.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Philip was at the core of creative writing’s evolution at UNCW from the very beginning,” Cox said. 

When Philip spoke of the creative writing department, he described it as “a cultural and literary anchor for the region — an energizing force in the literary community.”

Throughout the next three decades, Philip served the profession in myriad ways — as founding core faculty for the Low Residency MFA Program at Maryland’s Goucher College and faculty at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was part of the Duke Writers Workshop, Wildacres Writers Workshop, and Chautauqua Writers’ Center. 

We co-edited “Chautauqua,” the literary journal of Chautauqua Institution, NY, together. This work came to us on our wedding day, when friend and colleague Diana Hume George pulled us aside to ask if we would be interested in taking on leadership for the journal.

Philip, always funny and a great mimic of voices, took on his best Don Vito Corleone from “The Godfather”: “You come to me on my wedding day to ask me…”

There was laughter, and we were humbled. We worked on that project ever since.

While writing was his life’s work, anyone who knew Philip knew music was essential to his soul. He once said: “Taking a guitar into a new environment is an instant connection to make friends.”

He played guitar, banjo, pedal steel guitar, hammered dulcimer, bodhrán, piano, and harmonica. Most Saturday afternoons, he could be found in his music room, practicing — or “woodshedding.” The melodies filled our house. Philip, who played everyday, loved practicing and always had so much fun.

Some nights he would “sing me” — shorthand for our own private concerts. He would sing me old favorites, and I always got to hear new songs first. I would sing along, trying to add harmony. 

Though Philip had no formal music training, he had drive and heart. He loved the soulful sound of the pedal steel guitar. Playing the pedal steel is no easy feat, a simultaneous maneuvering of the feet, knees and hands. And Philip loved a challenge.

So, he bought a pedal steel, attended a workshop or two, and worked through lessons on YouTube. He learned to play and often said he thought it must be something like what helicopter pilots must feel — so many parts working to keep things in motion.

On a road trip through Virginia, we ended up in Orange, where he found Billy Cooper’s Music, a store chock full of vintage pedal steels. A second pedal steel guitar — a hard rock Maple Sho Bud with a double neck — found its way home that day.

His collection of instruments continued during our travels. On a trip to Ireland, he became fascinated with the bodhrán, a frame drum often used in Irish music. We visited a bodhrán maker’s shop — one made its way back with us stateside. Once home, Philip returned to YouTube for lessons and loved the heartbeat sound of that drum.

In 2015, he fulfilled a long-held ambition to write and record an album of original music. That ambition was written down when he was just in sixth grade — he had a list of ambitions as it turns out. “Make a record album” was the last one on the list.

When talking and writing about the album as a made thing, he described it like this: “The idea of an album is that the suite of songs it contains is somehow a complete musical story, a finished artistic thought.”

“American Anthem” was produced by Jeff Reid with a talented group of musicians that included Philip’s stepson, Patrick Leahman, on electric bass.  

The album release was held at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium to a full house — a place Philip was happy to play. He always called Kenan Auditorium “a warm house,” which had everything to do with the acoustics. But that night it also had everything to do with the band and the audience.

The story of that album will appear in a memoir this spring, “American Anthem: The Album of a Life in Story and Song” (Beach Glass Books).

After Bob Dylan won the Noble Peace Prize in Literature in 2016, Philip was inspired and determined to create a songwriting class at UNCW. He reached out to colleague, fellow writer and musician, Bland Simpson for some advice. Simpson, a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, teaches songwriting at UNC Chapel Hill. Bland and Philip talked and shared ideas, and this led to Philip’s proposal for the new course at UNCW.

Doodles from Philip Gerard’s journals. (Courtesy Jill Gerard)

In thinking about the goals of that course, Philip described how he would “use the songwriting process to enhance and open up the writer’s creative process in his or her or their genre.” His interest was in the process. He believed if “we pay enough attention to how we are working, we will likely create memorable songs as an artifact of the process.”

Thus, songwriting became an option for students at UNCW. And each semester the class was offered, the students came together in a dedicated community, focused on the creative process and created beautiful songs along the way.

“Listening to a roomful of young voices carry a tune they made up, singing words they conjured out of a messy process of trial and error — fitting in the syllables to match pitches, working the phrases into bars of four beats each, interlocking the lines thematically and then buttoning them together with ABAB rhymes — is, for me, pure joy,” Philip wrote in his essay “Songwriting and the Creative Process.” 

He carried that joy from week to week — sharing stories about the songwriting class as we unwound, a glass of wine for me, a beer for Philip.

Doodles from Philip Gerard’s journals. (Courtesy Jill Gerard)

The end of each semester culminated with students sharing their works through performance. After the show, the vestiges of professor and student vanished.

“At the end of the night we sat at the bar — me, Philip, and Jill,” former student Steve Vineis said, referring to a performance that took place at Burnt Mill Creek Billiards and Wine. “And it was just three people talking. There was no ‘this is my professor’ or ‘this is my student.’ That’s how Philip was. Those things dropped away in his presence. We were just three people hanging at the bar, talking about our lives and our dogs.”

Each experience Philip endured informed the next and all brought something back to his personal life and to his work in the department at UNCW and beyond.

At the heart of it all were the students. Philip’s commitment remained steadfast to learning, listening, meeting the challenge, but most importantly teaching others how to stay true to their vision. 

Keith Kopka, a UNCW MFA graduate who was also an early member of the “Chautauqua” editorial team, shared this reminiscence when he heard of Philip’s passing:

“Pretty much my entire life and career path started at Chautauqua, and when I think of Philip, I think of us playing guitar in that strange little apartment on the top floor of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Center. It was then and there that I started to understand that I could have a life in writing, and Philip was integral to showing me that.”

“Philip pushed us to move beyond cliché into what he called ‘the complicated, unmapped terrain of the human heart,’” Jeff Oloizia, MFA student and friend, remembered.

Taylor Salvetti, a student from Philip’s songwriting class, noted Philip’s penchant for for pushing students beyond what they thought they were capable of.

“We built these songs as a class with his guidance,” Salvetti said. “He took the songwriting process very seriously, which in-turn made us take it seriously, but inside that classroom, it still felt like play. Philip made sure to harness that with this class. Some minutes would turn into a jam session or heavy laughter. And he gave us space to write, and the environment to explore a different creative avenue that many of us hadn’t tried before.”

Donna Lewis Johnson remembers her first summer at the Goucher Nonfiction MFA Residency.

“His conversations fixed my thoughts on the notion that observations can lead writers to discover nuances in the human experience and tell those stories through the prisms of their perspectives,” she said.

Above all, Philip valued a writer’s guttural intuition. He often shared feedback with students, but his most prominent advice: “Whatever I or anyone else says is not as important as your own instincts for your work. Be true to your vision.” 

He encouraged students to develop interests in things you know and things you don’t. More importantly, he said, “Write what you really want to find out about.” It was advice he believed in and lived by.

Philip’s work centered on creating community. Students were new members to this community of writers — but also they weren’t just students but future colleagues and friends.

Philip with his family dog, Daisy. (Courtesy Jill Gerard)

For Philip, writing was a constant part of life. He published 16 books of fiction and creative nonfiction, two of which are seminal textbooks used in universities across the nation. He wrote poems and songs. He kept journals of ideas.

The 1994 publication of Philip’s novel “Cape Fear Rising” changed the course of his professional life — and opened a door for the Wilmington community to come to grips with a harried, buried past. 

When Philip learned his home in Wilmington, North Carolina, was also a place of the only successful government coup on American soil since the Revolution, his quest for uncovering the past set afoot. It wasn’t only a coup — it was a massacre of the African American community.

No one talked about it then. No one.

Philip engaged with his one African American colleague at the time about the segregation that endured in Wilmington. When he asked about 1898, his colleague referred to it obliquely as “the riots.”

Philip began to dig; he found a few obscure self-published works by Alfred Moore Waddell, one of the white supremacists who led the massacre, Charles Chesnutt’s novel, “The Marrow of Tradition,” and a biography of Randall Ward Kenan written by his son.

Nothing recent had been published at the time, so Philip decided to tell the story. “Cape Fear Rising” was first published in 1994, well ahead of the 100th year anniversary of the coup.

“The history is all accurate,” Philip often would iterate at public events, though the novel weaved conversations he could not have overheard 100 years earlier. Philip addressed the dialogue in the “Afterword” of the 2019 anniversary edition. 

“My ethic was to do my utmost to make the public scenes accurate. But I also gave my historical figures dialogue — much of it from what there were recoded to have said, other dialogue from words they write in speeches, tracts, or letters … in letters and speeches and diaries, the writer can hear the grammar of the time, the rhythm or a particular voice, the cadence of thought, the favorite expressions, and the figurative language of that bygone day.” 

He cited real locations and used everyone’s given names affected by the turn of events. Using those names created problems. Phone calls came in the late hours of the night, including many threats and unkind words.

Yet, just as many, if not more people stood in his corner. James Leutze, then-chancellor of UNCW, was a stalwart supporter and backed Philip and the book even as the UNCW Board of Trustees tried to deny his tenure.

One Sunday morning when StarNews ran a story about the novel, Philip’s phone rang. On the other end was Rachel Freeman’s voice.

“I just called to start your day with a happy phone call,” she told Philip. “Because you are going to get a lot of awful phone calls today.” 

When the book was reissued in a second edition, Randall Kenan, revered as the “Black bard of the South,” wrote that “Cape Fear Rising” “accomplishes what we hope is the business of powerful fiction: It takes you there; it helps you understand the world a little better … Philip Gerard did us a service not only in exploring the darker angels of our nature, but also by helping to keep the story alive and on the tongues of Americans in an era of misinformation and mass forgetfulness.”

In the afterword to the anniversary edition, Philip described the challenges he faced while writing the book. He suggested “the writer of public events becomes a surrogate conscience for the community.”

This requires facing and grappling with the moral problems of the people at the heart of the events.

He asked: “When everyone around you is doing wrong, at what point must you, the individual, take responsibility? At what point must you act to stop it?”

Getting to the heart of truth drove Philip. Research and writing were his way to push into it.

In the prologue to “The Art of Creative Research” (2017), he stated: “Every conversation is a story, and every story is an adventure, and every adventure takes me out of my small life into a larger one, and I love that. I love that it catapults me out into the world, outdoors, in all seasons, to places I have only dreamed of going—or maybe never dreamed of going.” This belief has informed his way of being for his whole life.

In the nearly three decades since “Cape Fear Rising” brought the coup of 1898 back into the cultural conversation, multiple books — both fiction and nonfiction — have been published. Several documentaries, narrative films and plays have been produced. 

However, it wasn’t the only work that defined Philip’s voracious curiosity — an inquisitiveness I am grateful to have shared with him. Together, we explored the world in locations near and far; our jaunts and adventures led Philip to propose a book about the Cape Fear River to North Carolina University Press.

With a group of fellow adventurers, he traveled from the headwaters down the river to the inlet, estuary and Frying Pan Shoals. Philip retraced the journey, walked the banks and chronicled it in 2013’s “Down the Wild Cape Fear.” It captures the length of the Cape Fear River and what the body of water means to our community. 

At the end of his introduction, Philip described the river as “a living system, a wild and delightful thing. A breathless story. And doesn’t this describe all of us. Here, we are living our lives — wild and delightful — making our breathless story a reality.”

Active with the Cape Fear River Watch, Philip wrote the biography of the river and spent years serving as a steward in its preservation, deepening his knowledge and understanding. Topics that engaged him intersected where and how people make their lives in the world, how they work to endure and face hardships, all to understand where we live.

In 2019, Philip turned his attention to “The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina.” The book was inspired by a series of pieces he published in “Our State Magazine,” depicting the American Civil War as it unfolded in North Carolina. The essays took him across the state and beyond the borders of the state, down dirt roads, across battlefields, and into houses both humble and grand.

“I love the hush of those deserted places, those old battlefields, always so breathtaking, as if we, as a species, have decided to fight only in beautiful places,” he wrote in “The Art of Creative Research.”

In an interview featured during his nomination for the North Carolina Award in Literature, Philip described the state as the perfect lens through which one might view that war.

“[It] mirrored all the divisions and all the issues the whole country was feeling,” he said, “the stories add up to a panorama that is far more interesting and complicated than the ‘North/South battle lines, big battle, Lincoln frees the slaves’ narrative that is the sort of fifth grade version we all got in our history class.” 

The writings led to his service on the board of directors of the North Carolina Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction History Center, slated to be built in Fayetteville. Increasingly concerned that the unhealed wounds and unresolved issues from the Civil War were at the root of today’s cataclysms, Philip called his advocacy for the history center the most important work he has engaged to address the challenges of our national history.

Philip’s interests wove past and future together. If history were the warp threads, his commitment to community created the weft. He was an early advisor for the “Boundless” sculpture created by Durham artist Stephen Hayes to commemorate the United States Colored Troops who marched toward the Battle at Forks Road, the historic site now home to Cameron Art Museum. The Jan. 20, 1865, battle helped propel the fall of the Confederacy and end the Civil War.

“Seeing the eleven figures in the silvered light was like watching a squad of ghost soldiers advancing out of the darkness of the piney woods,” Philip posted to his social media account after its unveiling last year — “very moving and surreal, a moment in which those long-dead infantrymen came to life again on the same ground where they fought so bravely for their own freedom and that of the other four million enslaved people.”

The stories not yet told captivated Philip. On one of his research adventures, we journeyed to the far western reaches of North Carolina, to Fontana — to see the dam and try to reconnect to the town that emerged so quickly in the 1940s as the dam was built. 

Research can bring unexpected and fortunate encounters — and such was the case in this moment. I had wanted to see Fontana Village, a resort area now, because my dad had often visited. But it got late in the day and I suggested calling it off. Philip said, “No. Let’s go. It is the place you wanted to see on this trip.” So, we did. 

When we turned into the circular driveway, we saw a banner — “Welcome Dam Kids.” We stumbled onto a reunion of the children who grew up at Fontana as their fathers were building it. That moment became the seed for another novel — one I hope will find a home, even though Philip is no longer here to see the project come to fruition.

In 2019, Philip was awarded the highest civilian honor given by the state. The North Carolina Award in Literature recognizes his significant contributions to the state and the nation in the field of literature.

But it doesn’t come close to enveloping the greatness of his life and what he gave back to so many. 

At a recent incoming reception for graduate students, Melissa Crowe, the MFA coordinator at UNCW, asked faculty for advice to share with students.

“I have done my writing,” Philip said. “Now I am at the party.”

This is perhaps advice for all of us.

Philip Gerard’s celebration of life will be held at the Cameron Art Museum, 3201 South 17th Street, on Dec. 10, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be music, words and fellowship; his official obituary is here.

A Philip Gerard Graduate Fellowship to support students in the UNCW MFA program has been launched in his memory; donations can be made here.

Jill Gerard is an associate professor of English at the University of Mount Olive. She edits the literary journal “Chautauqua” and in that capacity works with both graduate and undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Local writer Gwenyfar Rohler contributed to the feature.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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