R.H.W. Dillard, renowned author and figure in the creative writing world, and a devoted member of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Hollins University for 59 years, died Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Roanoke.
A distinguished member of the Hollins faculty since 1964 and Roanoke native, Dillard earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Roanoke College and completed his Master of Arts and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to serve as chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Hollins for 33 years, where he taught creative writing, British and American literature, and film. He was editor of the Hollins Critic, the university’s literary journal, since 1996, and editor-in-chief of Children’s Literature, the annual of the Children’s Literature Association, since 1992. He founded Hollins’ graduate program in children’s literature and taught in the program in its early years.
Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton noted that Dillard is “synonymous with our English and creative writing program. I know our community will grieve this tremendous loss.”
“No one did more than Dillard to turn the raw talent of Hollins University’s creative writing program into national stars, or to catapult [it] into one of America’s Top 20 programs,” The Roanoker magazine noted in 2009. “Dillard mentored approximately 800 aspiring writers from around the world, including such Pulitzer winners and stellar authors as Annie Dillard, Lee Smith, Madison Smart-Bell, Jill McCorkle, Henry Taylor, Natasha Trethewey, and Kiran Desai. For his contribution to other writers, Dillard was awarded the 2007 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) George Garrett Award.”
In nominating Dillard for the Garrett Award, Professor of English Emerita Jeanne Larsen wrote, “His grace and gifts and generosity of spirit make him almost unique in my experience. In Richard’s career as editor, program builder, community sustainer, mentor, critic, life-changing teacher, top-notch writer, and idea guy, he’s helped countless young (and not young) writers, directly or behind the scenes. He has transformed a program, helped start others, edited journals, nourished writers’ groups, written critical pieces that lifted up neglected writers, and sent four decades’ worth of writing teachers out across the country to do work that keeps our art alive.”
In 1987, Dillard was named Virginia’s Professor of the Year. “His award is hardly remarkable,” The Roanoke Times reported, “considering the fervent recommendations of colleagues and former students sent to CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education). [The] high-powered national education association chose him over nominees from 17 other Virginia schools.”
Dillard was also a prolific and acclaimed author and scholar in his own right. His works include The Day I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele and Other Poems; News of the Nile; After Borges; The Greeting: New and Selected Poems; The Book of Changes; Horror Films; The First Man on the Sun; Understanding George Garrett; Just Here, Just Now; Omniphobia; Sallies; What Is Owed the Dead; and Not Ideas: Philosophical Poems. He also penned many stories, poems, essays, and literary translations. Dillard received both the O.B. Hardison and Hanes poetry prizes and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2011. The Virginia Writers Club honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
Dillard was the founder of Groundhog Poetry Press, which he described as “a small, independent press dedicated to publishing absolutely the best poetry we can find without regard to any factor other than quality.”
Dillard’s life, influence, and legacy will be forever cherished by colleagues and former students alike. “No professor has ever done more in the service of literature or the humanities than Richard Dillard,” author Lee Smith ‘67 stated in 1987. “No professor has ever done more to help his students – following their progress, in many cases, throughout their lives, supporting and advising them at every critical juncture. I remain profoundly grateful.”
After Dillard’s death was shared with the Hollins community, Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing and Associate Professor of English Thorpe Moeckel, who currently serves as director of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing, reflected, “Richard said with his eyes and his grin more than his breath. He told me before I came to Hollins, ‘Be of good voice.’ I still feel those words as if it’s a collective voice, a voice of everything good, loving, and true we’ve known, a voice of and beyond language. Richard is missed, but he’s with us, his voice on and off the page, puzzling us in various ways to endeavor to care.”
Meditation for a Pickle Suite
by Richard Dillard
Morning: the soft release
As you open a jar of pickles.
The sun through the window warm
And moving like light through the brine,
The shadows of pickles swim the floor.
And in the tree, flowing down the chimney,
The songs of fresh birds clean as pickles.
Memories float through the day
Like pickles, perhaps sweet gherkins.
The past rises and falls
Like curious pickles in dark jars,
Your hands are sure as pickles,
Opening dreams like albums,
Pale Polish pickles.
Your eyes grow sharp as pickles,
Thoughts as green, as shining
As rows of pickles, damp and fresh,
Placed out in the afternoon sun.