Sunday, February 11, 2018

Elly Welt

Elly Welt was Auburn University's Writer-In-Residence from the late 80's through the 90's. She retired around 2000 and moved to Seattle to be with her children. She died this last weekend, after struggling with heart failure for many years.

I had to talk my way into Elly's fiction writing class my junior year. She didn't want to accept anybody who wasn't an English major, and looked at me like I had two heads the first time I strolled into her corner office on the ninth floor of Haley asking for a seat. It took two quarters to convince her she ought to allow in this weird Engineering major who hung around the English department a lot.

Elly's classes were not for the faint of heart. We were required to write a short story a week, and pass out copies to the rest of the class (to say nothing of Elly herself) for criticism. If you were really unlucky she'd call on you to read it out loud, and then tell you in no uncertain terms what you'd done wrong--or right, on rare occasions. One poor girl started her first story with a long quote from a Tiffany song, and was never seen again.

She was tough. She was smart. She was one of the best writers I've ever encountered. You should go buy a copy of Elly's novel "Berlin Wild" right now, and you'll see what I mean. And she was very quickly enchanted by this odd Land Grant college where she'd landed a highly-coveted position. 

Elly had never spent any time in the Deep South before coming to Auburn. She was a Jewish mama from New York the Midwest, and a product of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the gold standard of academic fiction training. With that background you'd have expected her to look down her nose at the motley pack of public school kids from Alabama and Georgia and the Florida Panhandle who'd bluffed their way into her classes.

Instead, she and her husband Peter, a retired M.D., embraced the students, the town and the college. By the end of Fall Quarter in 1989, she was bugging me with questions about how Pat Dye was going to keep from having an aneurism over the looming First Time Ever game against UAT. 

I wish Bruce Pearl could have met Elly. They'd have got on like a house on fire.

Elly set me on the path. I kept taking her classes anytime they were offered, including going to the dean of the graduate school to get permission to take her MA class as an undergrad (and an undergrad engineer at that). She recommended me for the first Auburn Birdsong Scholarship that sent me to Oxford in 1991, and after I graduated she helped Scott Brown and me bash the manuscript of "The Uncivil War" into something publishable. 

We always kept in touch, even after her retirement and Peter's death, along with a few other of her former students from Auburn. The last time I heard from her was an email last fall. She was tickled to tell me that the conversation at her (ritzy) retirement complex dining room in Seattle was buzzing about the Tigers' November surge, and as a former Auburn professor, she'd been quizzed by most of the male residents for "inside info."

Elly struggled with ill health for a long time, but she kept writing, even after tastes changed and the New York publishing houses lost their interest in literary fiction. She finished three or four more novels after leaving Auburn (I've read one of them; it is magnificent), and I believe her daughter will be publishing them with Amazon in the future. I hope so. She deserves to be read much more widely.

I miss Elly terribly already, but I was very lucky to have known her. I hope you did, too.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this! It’s lovely to see the impacts she had.
    Be the way, Elly grew up in Omaha NE and spent 20 years in Iowa, first Sioux City, then Iowa City.
    I’m her daughter.

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  2. Thank you so much, Elly had so many New York stories, all us hicks from the sticks assumed she had come from there.

    Elly told me a few years ago that you were going to be her literary executor. I hope you'll be making her unpublished work available; I feel like I'm cheating the rest of the world to be one of the few people who've read "Virgin Of The Snows."

    My very best to you and all of Elly's family. Please stay in touch.

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