University of Texas at Austin loses great friend in death of James Michener

Oct. 17, 1997

AUSTIN, Texas — James Michener leaves behind a great legacy, both material and intangible, for aspiring young writers at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who died Thursday (Oct. 16) in Austin, was the moving force behind the establishment of the Texas Center for Writers at UT, an interdisciplinary graduate program in fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting. Michener and his late wife, Mari Sabusawa Michener, made many donations to UT Austin, most recently a gift of $15 million in 1992 to endow the writing center, and $10 million for a new art museum at the University.

At the time of his death, Michener was the Jack G. Taylor Centennial Professor Emeritus at the University. Funeral arrangements are scheduled for Tuesday (Oct. 21) at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Austin at 2:30 p.m. The church is located at 3208 Exposition Blvd. Plans are being made for a memorial service at the University in the near future.

"James Michener was a friend of higher education everywhere, but he leaves a special mark on The University of Texas at Austin," said Dr. Peter Flawn, president ad interim of UT Austin. "James and Mari gave generously to create the Michener collection of 20th-century art here, to help us realize our vision of building a new art museum for the University, and to create and endow the Texas Center for Writers. Generations of students, scholars and visitors benefit from the vision, the exuberance, the leadership and the generosity of James Michener. He was a man who left his mark on our time."

The Micheners have made gifts totaling more than $44 million to UT Austin, the largest sum ever contributed to the University. Some of the Micheners' gifts were eligible for the University's matching program. Matching funds amounted to a total of $4.5 million to the Texas Center for Writers, which brought the total effect of his gifts to $48.7 million.

Michener, whose own schooling was funded entirely through scholarships, talked often about the importance of education and said what he wanted most — through gifts and endowments — was to encourage and help train gifted young writers.

The couple's contributions to the University also included a distinguished collection of 20th- century American art, fellowships in book publishing with UT Press and gifts to the General Libraries."A great friend of the University has passed away," said Dr. William Livingston, UT Austin senior vice president. "The whole University community will miss him. He was a man of letters, a man with a keen artistic sense, and at the same time, a very practical man.

"Working with Michener was a joy. His imagination soared and he had a memory like none I've ever seen. If he ever got interested in something, he learned about it. And Jim became interested in just about everything," Livingston said.

The program at the Texas Center for Writers draws upon the faculty in several disciplines. The center was established in 1989 and offers a three-year master of fine arts degree in writing. The Michener gifts are used for scholarships and fellowships for students enrolled in the graduate writing program and for a visiting distinguished writers lecture series.

"All week long the students have been calling, wanting to know what they could do for Mr. Michener, bring him a cup of tea, anything," said James Magnuson, director of the center. "He took a personal interest in every one of them. Three of our students have had their novels published in the past year and I know this gratified him. What he has done for future generations of young writers is a legacy worthy to stand next to his own remarkable achievements as an author. We will miss him fiercely."

Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, professor of English and the first director of the Texas Center for Writers, said Michener was "a good man in every sense of the word. His remarkable talent as a best-selling author aside, Jim Michener was a first-rate teacher, editor and friend to his students."His unstinting generosity to The University of Texas at Austin is incalculable, as was his influence on millions of readers throughout the world."

The James A. Michener writing fellowships at the center pay for a recipient's tuition and fees, in addition to a $12,000 per year stipend. A select few are chosen for post-graduate fellowships. "James Michener literally opened an entire world for me," said post-graduate fellow Natasha Waxman. "He made graduate school possible. I would have found a way to write anyway, but the Michener fellowship eased the way immeasurably, and introduced me to a community of writers."

Belinda Acosta, a 1997 graduate, said Michener's greatest gift to her was the opportunity to bring her two passions — writing and learning — together for three years. "Without his generosity, I would not have attended graduate school, let alone study writing. Three whole years! For a writer, the value of three years to write and learn is incalculable."

Michener, who earned his bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College in 1929 and attended St. Andrews University, Scotland, regularly conducted seminars at the Texas Center for Writers. He was a member of the UT System Chancellor's Council and the Littlefield Society at UT Austin. The author of more than 50 books, he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Tales of the South Pacific, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

In fall of 1996, the author published an appraisal of public policy titled This Noble Land: My Vision for America, and on his 90th birthday, last February, he announced the publication of a volume of poetry, A Century of Sonnets, on which he had been working intermittently for several years.

NOTE to MEDIA: No cameras (still or television) will be allowed in the church for Tuesday's funeral. The media is welcome to film or take photographs outside the church.