Monday, March 18, 2013

Remembering John McClenny

by Paul Fecteau

eFM Press Co-founder John McClenny passed away March 10. When I visited him in the hospital, he introduced me to the nurses as "one of my professors." Something seemed a little odd about that, but I didn't worry about it then. I have been thinking about it a lot since.

The fall of 2003 was my first semester as a lecturer in the English Department at Washburn University, and I went to the secretary about the possibility of having a student assigned as my research assistant. The problem was the material I worked with was gruesome – I was writing about a murder. "I have the perfect person for the job," she said. A few hours later, a giant man with a bald head and a white Van Dyke appeared at my office door and introduced himself as John. He was in his fifties, and the degree he sought would just be one more amid a life of accomplishments. He was well traveled and well read. Our conversation revealed an array of mutual interests, and the work we began that day would be just the first in a series of collaborations.

Anything weird and unexplainable going on in our neck of the woods garnered our attention. Our pursuits included trips to a number of allegedly haunted houses. We liked to play the roles of skeptic versus believer. My skepticism was pretty run of the mill, but John's belief was based upon years of study and a few remarkable experiences—not all of which he would tell me about. He did as much debunking of what we encountered as I did. (I'm not sure how popular he was with ghost-hunting groups because he refused to cart around equipment or act impressed when someone got an orb on a photo.) John's short story "Skeptic," the final entry in our collaboration Barely Bound, is probably about our debates. As you can imagine, his side gets the last laugh.

John's fiction and poetry was intense. You'd expect that in a novel like Wolfbitch in which the action doesn't let you catch your breath, but his poems also have something unrelenting about them. Several of his works wrestled with the history of the Post Office Oak in Council Grove, and even at its most philosophical, his prose never loses sight of the frontier as a dynamic environment which foists upon us a series of life-and-death decisions. I think that's how he saw writing: each sentence or line is a chance to either connect with readers or lose them. That came through in the feedback he gave me and others whom he helped. I recall an instance when a fellow student showed him a poem. He thought a moment, and then said, "Listen to this." He re-read the poem, dropping a word out of just about every line. The text conveyed the same message but now with much more vitality. His fellow student was, of course, elated.

While thinking about that time, it dawned on me why it seemed off for John to call me "one of his professors." I really looked up to him as one of my professors—if by professor we mean someone with expertise who shares it with us, allowing us to become better than we would have been on our own. Things are going to be a lot harder without him. It's important to remember, though, that all that he was able to share with us continues to operate in our work. We do right by him to do our best and carry on.
Poet Amy Fleury presents John with an award at the 2007 Washburn University English Department Banquet.