Friends of THEODORE ROETHKE • Moving Forward With Vision & Persistence in Trying Times

    icon Jun 03, 2020
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I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. 

I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

-Theodore Roethke, ‘The Waking’


These are times when we know more than ever the importance of home, hearth, neighborhood and the nurturing sensibilities that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke and his poetry offer not only to the birthplace of his Saginaw community, but to the entire Great Lakes Bay Region and beyond.

Former Saginaw Mayor and Saginaw Board of Education member Joyce Seals calls the Roethke House, ‘a house of hope’, which is entirely fitting insofar as it is a place in time that gives context to where this iconic poet lived and worked, and a sense of placement to the timeless eternity of his poetry, serving as an enduring haven for creativity, inspiration and solitude - especially during these trying times when the process of healing becomes of paramount importance - offering a place of retreat and starting over.     For as Roethke also wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

The Friends of Theodore Roethke is a nonprofit foundation, established in 1999, that maintains and cares for the poet’s childhood home at 1805 Gratiot and the home of his uncle next door at 1795 Gratiot Ave.  The two Roethke Homes were built in 1904 (Stone House) and 1911 (poet’s white house) and were standing during the Spanish Flu in 1918. Ted was 10 years old and his sister June, 5 years.    Side-by-side the Roethke families with their young families weathered this epidemic and the years beyond; and for Friends of Roethke Board President and longtime Roethke supporter, Annie Ransford,  “We will too.”

Their mission commitment is to preserve, promote, and protect the literary legacy of Theodore Roethke, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, by restoring his family residences in Saginaw, Michigan, for cultural and educational opportunities.  In recognition of the impact Theodore Roethke made upon the artistry of American poetry and the influence his childhood home had on his writing, the Theodore Roethke Museum was named a National Literary Landmark in 2004. The house has a Michigan Historical Marker on the front lawn and is featured on the National Register of Historic Sites.   Additionally, on May 25th this year (date of the poet’s birthday) the City of Saginaw issued a proclamation to honor Roethke’s birthday each year moving forward, insofar as his legacy is one that truly makes Saginaw unique.  

When operational Roethke’s uncle’s  Stone House will be a community center with rooms for visiting writers to live and work in area schools, with classrooms for homework clubs for reading and writing, and rooms for lectures and meetings. “Roethke Language Camp will have space to be inside and outside and save wear and tear on 1805 as one house protects the other,” Ransford continues. “Having both houses will enable us to hold year around programs instead of just seasonal ones.  We envision having paid staff to manage more offerings.”

For twenty years now The Friends of Theodore Roethke  have conducted summer Literary Picnics titled  “In a Poet’s Backyard” where writers read and discuss their work,  accompanied by meals from local restaurants. They have also branched out with a variety of topics oriented around Roethke and his work, including gardening (the poet’s father ran a greenhouse), and history (the poet’s family was part of a German migration to Saginaw in 1800’s lumber era), and mental health (the poet - as many geniuses often are - was bi-polar and more).

For ten years the group has also conducted Summer Language Arts Review Camps entitled “Child on Top of a Greenhouse”, collaborating with Joyce Seals and students from the Ezekiel Project.  Students are tutored in small groups for reading and writing review followed by activities from Roethke’s 1920’s era,  such as learning how to dance the Charleston, meeting Amelia Earhart, and planting pot gardens.  

Additionally, Friends of Theodore Roethke have given tours and conducted classes and formed collaborations with area Universities - particularly Saginaw Valley State University for the Roethke Festival every three years; and ongoing SVSU student interns who help write grants, catalog artifacts, and update social media.    They also have a relationship with Central Michigan University, where they have a mental health contract to work with graduate students and have been invited to speak in their library auditorium; along with Michigan State University,  where Roethke House has entered Edible Book Contests and also presented Roethke in their Out Look Gallery at the Center for Poetry.

Given all the uncertainty, disruption, and fear generated through our battle against COVID-19, coupled with the recent floods, followed by racial riots reminiscent of the late 1960s, the significance of Friends of Theodore Roethke’s work and mission becomes more pivotal than ever - and according to Ransford - one of the most heartening developments over the past year is the strength and commitment of their newly constituted Board of Trustees, with each member possessing special talents to advance the group’s mission. 

“We now have a Board of Trustees committed to fulfilling Roethke’s original mission to restore both family residences, because having both homes operational will extend our potential to serve Saginaw,” explains Ransford.  “With this mission the poet’s childhood home will continue as a museum filled with artifacts; its doors open for writing on site, research and tours, keeping the ambience of Roethke’s era.”

The new 2020 Board of Trustees consists of Fred Overdier, Recording Secretary and lawyer at Braun Kendrick Finkbeiner; Bill Keys, Treasurer & Owner of Country Club Cleaners; Sherrin Frances ,Ph.D - Technology Chairperson and English Professor at SVSU; poet Tess Gallagher; New York visual artist Mary McDonnell, Alex deParry, Construction Chairperson and president of Ann Arbor BuildersJoyce Seals, former Mayor and current Saginaw Public Schools board member, Anita Skeen, from the MSU Center for Poetry;  and Wardene Tally, Grant Coordinator and Director of ​Saginaw County Community Health.

Over a year ago, when the former board voted to remove the Stone House, Saginaw voices rose up to stop this demolition. According to Ransford: “Now with our current board and return to our original mission, Friends of Theodore Roethke has called on Saginaw to help us Save the Stone House with a goal of $50,000 to begin exterior renovations.  So far we have collected $13,000, but we plan to spend this funding and begin work on Stone House when it’s safe to do so.” 

Jessica Straddard Hamilton is working on writing a second appeal letter for donations on the Stone House that we’ll send out next summer; and Alex deParry is going to start painting the house,” continues Annie. “While we can’t afford to paint the entire house at this juncture, we will do so until the money runs out. We’ll also patch the roof because we can’t afford an entire replacement right now, and we have some carpentry work that needs to be done. But if people see some action happening on the Stone House we are hoping that will want to donate and volunteer, so we are chugging away.”  

“After the first $50,000, the Roethke Board’s job will be to find more funding demanding additional memberships, grants, donations, and fundraisers that merge towards a capital campaign.  We have much work ahead especially in these uncertain times.”

“Our Summer Literary Picnics are currently  on hold and may become virtual ones,” she notes.  “As for our Roethke Language Arts Review Camp (“Child on Top of a Greenhouse”) while this will unfortunately not take place this summer, after the Minneapolis murder and unrest to follow, we feel strongly that we need to reach out to former Language Camp students, especially this summer when we’re not holding Language Camp at Roethke House.  Last year we had 95 kids attend this camp, so Roethke House and Ezekiel Project are preparing packets to former students containing seeds to plant for flowers and journals to write poetry in, workbook reading and writing lessons, and art supplies, so they can do this at home. We made this decision out of concerns for safety over corona virus for all the young students, which are Pre Kindergarten through 5th grade.  The protests are more reason not to hold camp.  I sure wish we could, but the collected packets will be next best thing."

Other positive momentum has been realized in the form of two grants Friends of Theodore Roethke  recently were awarded.   “We have received Funding from the Michigan Council of Arts in the form of a H.0.P.E. grant for $5,000 through the Michigan Humanities Council Emergency Relief Grants and the National Endowment for the Humanities for $2,000 to help us with operational costs and funds to pay contracted presenters. These will enable a limited number of Literary Picnics (In a Poet’s Backyard) with contracted presenters, (virtually or in-person), and underwriting Roethke’s seasonal operational expenses.  Several presenters were contacted before we were aware of the worldwide scope of the COVID-19  Pandemic for what was to be our 20th summer of Literary Picnics."

"I usually write grants in March to make summer events possible, but this year, when I tried to contact grant funders, they were no longer in their office and sheltering in place, so this recent grant funding will enable us to move forward with this series - either in a virtual setting, or in our usual in-house setting, depending upon what the Board of Trustees decides as things start to open up," notes Ransford.  "Some people prefer to wait until late August or September so we can have these presentations in person; but we may be able to do it sooner.”

While the presenters and their programs are now on hold, with dates and times to be announced in the future, this year’s programs include:

• Fred Reif - His latest book "Tell 'em 'bout the Blues" shares stories about American blues and roots artists, based in Michigan, as documented and told by the author and musician.

• Michael Kolleth on ‘Roethke’s Written World’. Using rare books and manuscripts related to the poet, rare book collector and director of the Temple Theatre and Saginaw Art Museum will connect Theodore Roethke to Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams and other 20th Century poets while providing insight into Roethke's personal life and creative process. He will also talk about 1st editions and manuscripts. 

• Ricardo Verdoni - a noted Saginaw-based film-maker will feature General David Hall, an African American author, college professor, and outstanding community personality. General Hall also earned his PhD in business and was a supporter of Roethke House. His story is an inspiration to all and especially younger generations to follow his example of perseverance.  

• Sherrin Frances, SVSU English professor and author, will conduct a book talk on her latest book, Libraries Amid Protest (University of Massachusetts Press).   She argues that protest libraries function as the spaces of opportunity and resistance promised but not delivered by American public libraries.

• Wardene Tally, Director of Saginaw County Community Mental Health, will lead a writing workshop based on writing therapy during these anxious times. We will turn to fellow writers for inspiration. The poets will see us through.

• Jeff Vande Zande, professor of English at Delta College, recently published a new book of short stories: The Neighborhood Division (Whistling Shade Press). He will read from his new work with poet and psychotherapist Ken Meisel who recently had published a New and Selected collection of poetry. 

“The above contracted presenters and their honorarium are of main concern as well as summer operating expenses.   it's most important that we turn to arts and culture during uncertain times. It's important that we as a foundation continue a strong community outreach needed as we establish ourselves with a new board and strategic plan to move forward with our mission to save both Roethke family homes,” Ransford reflects.

“We have some excellent good people on our Board of Trustees and a renewed spirit,” concludes Annie. “I truly feel we are like a Phoenix coming out of the ashes.”










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