Professor brings literary giants to Lenoir-Rhyne

John Updike, Alice Walker and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins have already made appearances at Lenoir-Rhyne University's 20-year-old Visiting Writers Series.

So have Frank McCourt and Joyce Carol Oates.

This year, scheduled authors include Anna Quinlen (“Black and Blue”), Terry McMillan (“Waiting to Exhale”) and poet Galway Kinnell – winner of a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and a MacArthur genius grant.

How does a regional college in Hickory attract so many literary superstars?

The answer centers on English professor Rand Brandes.

Brandes began bringing writers to campus soon after he arrived in 1988. With a modest budget, he at first invited poet friends and friends of friends he knew through his academic specialty – modern Irish poetry, and specifically, Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Many weren't well-known.

Brandes, however, has a knack for finding talent. In 1988, he brought in a young poet from Northern Ireland named Paul Muldoon. Today, Muldoon is The New Yorker's poetry editor and has a Pulitzer Prize.

Heaney visited in the early '90s and won the Nobel Prize in Literature not long after. Collins made his first Lenoir-Rhyne visit several years before he was named U.S. poet laureate.

In recent years, the school has hosted a stream of big-name writers. “We wanted people to experience someone who might change their lives, someone who might transform them,” Brandes says.

To snag writers whose visits can cost $20,000 or more, Lenoir-Rhyne gets help from grants and community partnerships with local library systems, clubs and corporate sponsors.

A committee of college and community members chooses at least six authors a year. Talks are all free and public. Fans come from Charlotte, Asheville, even other states.

The series has also spawned other literary events, including Hickory's annual Big Read program and a Little Read program for children.

In the process, supporters say, Brandes and Lenoir-Rhyne have helped make Hickory a more interesting, lively community. “It's a huge gift not only to students and the community, but to Western North Carolina,” Brandes says.

For this year's schedule, go to and click on “Visiting Writers Series.”

Abbott honored

The North Carolina Writers Conference recently honored author and retired Davidson College English professor Tony Abbott for a lifetime of writing, teaching and service. Abbott's works include the novel “Leaving Maggie Hope” and four poetry collections.