How do you honor the life of a legend? About 75 people, many of them former students of John "Jack" Wheatcroft '49, learned how on Sept. 16. Wheatcroft, a poet, author and popular English professor at Bucknell from 1952–96, died March 14 at age 91.
As attendees filed into Bucknell Hall for Wheatcroft's memorial service, they encountered a table with free copies of Answering Fire, a novella by Wheatcroft that former student Stephen Fried '67 published in 2006. Behind the table a photo montage depicting Wheatcroft through the years drew the eye as attendees made their way to their seats.
What followed was a service as distinguished and distinctive as the man himself. Wheatcroft had written a plan for his memorial service years before his death, and as master-of-ceremonies Professor and President Emeritus Gary Sojka explained, "We owe him strict adherence to his wishes, [which included no open-microphone testimonials]. He chose the music and the poems; we chose the readers."
The service began with the opening strains of Beethoven's Great Fugue in B flat major. Then Peter Balakian '73, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, professor of English at Colgate University and a student of Wheatcroft's, read Shakespeare's "Sonnet 71: No longer mourn for me when I am dead."
Shara McCallum, the former Stadler Center for Poetry director who is now a professor of English at Penn State University, next read William Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal."
The Beethoven fugue sounded again, then former Wheatcroft students moved through the last two readings. Bruce Smith '68, M'71, a professor of English at Syracuse University, read Theodore Roethke's "Meditation at Oyster River, Parts II and IV." Philip Brady '77, a professor of English at Youngstown State University, concluded with a movingly recited Emily Dickinson poem, "341 — After great pain, a formal feeling comes."
The fugue returned to bookend the service, which Sojka described as having "a flow." Guests moved outside, behind Bucknell Hall to see a poplar tree that had been planted in Wheatcroft's honor and to hear Balakian and Smith read a few poems authored by Wheatcroft. Then guests — which included the Balakian family's six Bucknell graduates, from Arax '48 to James '10 — enjoyed chatting and reminiscing.
Fried, who videotaped the service, also did interviews afterward with the readers, as well as Wheatcroft's wife, Katherine Whaley Wheatcroft M'75, for a video project he is undertaking about Wheatcroft's life.