Poet and Professor: William C. Kloefkorn's NWU Legacy beyond Literature

  • William Kloefkorn smiling directly at the camera. Green foliage in the background implies that Bill is on campus at NWU.
    Bill on campus at NWU
  • William Kloefkorn smiling directly at the camera. Green foliage in the background implies that Bill is on campus at NWU.
    Bill on campus at NWU

“Old Main stands steady as a good heart’s beat

its red brick stout with ivy,

its doors beckoning

to each of the four immense directions”

—“Walking the Campus” by William Kloefkorn

Since Nebraska Wesleyan University opened its doors in 1887, talented scholars from across the country have offered NWU students a transformative education. Among many beloved teachers, one recent professor sticks out in faculty, staff and alumni’s minds for his profound impact on the NWU community. Nearly 12 years after the passing of Professor of English William Kloefkorn, his legacy continues to impact the NWU and Lincoln communities.

William Kloefkorn was born in the tiny rural town of Attica, Kansas, and during his 79 years, he carried with him an appreciation for rural life and the Great Plains. Kloefkorn’s time in Kansas and Nebraska inspired him to make midwestern life the main focus in his 31 poetry collections, two short story collections and four memoirs. Kloefkorn’s published works also include a collection of children’s Christmas stories.

In recognition of William Kloefkorn’s valuable contributions to literature, Nebraska’s Unicameral named him Nebraska’s state poet in 1982, and he received an honorary doctorate from NWU in 1999. Kloefkorn wrote poetry, taught at Nebraska Wesleyan, served as the state poet and dedicated himself to connecting the NWU and wider Lincoln community with creative writing. For 15 years, Kloefkorn’s booming voice traveled the airwaves during his NET radio show “Poetry on the Plains” where he shared stories with listeners across Nebraska. Kloefkorn continued to extend his work with the community by initiating the Poets in the Schools program in the 1970s, conducting writing workshops and providing readings of his work across the United States.

Professor of English and Education Dr. Rick Cypert remembers the profound impact Kloefkorn had on NWU students and faculty. After Old Main underwent renovations and reopened in 1988, Dr. Cypert found that his new office was next door to Kloefkorn’s office. Dr. Cypert soon found himself frequently visiting Kloefkorn’s office and they quickly became friends. During this time, he learned more about the English language from Kloefkorn in NWU’s Writers Group and during weekly coffee group meetings. Dr. Cypert fondly remembers these meetings at Ester’s Diner and later at Mo Java with Professor Kloefkorn, Dr. Leon Satterfield, Dr. Harold Hall and many other faculty from the English department. Faculty and staff outside the English department such as Professor of Psychology Dr. Ken Keith, Professor of Modern Languages Dr. Robert Meininger, Professor of Journalism Dr. Jim Schaffer and Twyla Hansen, NWU’s horticulturalist and Nebraska’s State Poet from 2013 to 2018, also joined these meetings. Looking back on his time spent in the coffee group Dr. Cypert states, “I loved being in that group because I was able to listen to Bill, Leon, Twyla and the others. They would get started on a story, usually funny, and you learned a lot about narrative, as well as comedic timing.” He also recognizes that by inviting faculty members from across campus to join the coffee group and the Writers Workshop, Kloefkorn “had a big impact on how seriously faculty across the curriculum took the business of writing.”

In conjunction with promoting creative writing and the study of language among faculty, Kloefkorn spread his love of literature and language to NWU students. Dr. Cypert explains, “Bill loved language and he ensured that students who enrolled in his freshman writing class did as well. They might have thought that they were just filling a requirement, but he changed their minds about writing and the importance of language because of his enthusiasm for it.” Director of Alumni Relations Shelley McHugh (’91) was one of the many students impacted by Kloefkorn’s enthusiasm for poetry and the English language. During her time studying for her English major and Business Administration and Journalism minors, Shelley attended a variety of Kloefkorn’s classes, including one of his poetry courses. Shelley remembers Kloefkorn as down to earth and “supportive of helping people on their creative journey.”

“He was matter-of-fact and very interested in helping students find their own voice and making their writing sincere,” remembers Shelley. “He taught us to write what we know. Don’t try to go clear outside the box but get to your clear, authentic self and write about that.”

Shelley still remembers the power of feeling deeply connected with one of the poems she wrote in Kloefkorn’s poetry class. At the end of the semester, Shelley and her peers selected several pieces to include in a final portfolio. Unlike some of the other students, Shelley decided to include a poem in her portfolio that received a grade lower than the other poems she had written. “Most of the time you would pick out all of your A+ papers and you would stick them in there; but I liked it, so I included it. Bill called me out in class and asked why I included it. I said, ‘I know it’s not the best one but when I wrote the poem it spoke specifically to me, and I really liked it.’ He loved that. It was one of those moments where you stand up for your work if you like it, and I think he really appreciated that.” Kloefkorn often assisted NWU students in building up confidence in themselves and their writing.

Beyond the NWU community, Kloefkorn left an impact on students across Nebraska. Dr. Cypert recalls how Kloefkorn served as a spokesperson for poetry and creative writing among Nebraska high school students. Kloefkorn, working with faculty in the English Department, held a creative writing workshop each fall semester on the NWU campus for high school students. “We’d have students from all over the state attend and each of us in the English department would work with a group of about 20. Bill would take the whole group through a writing exercise, and they would go off with each of us and write.” After students finished their writing, some would share their work. During the closing portion of the workshop, Kloefkorn would encourage the students to read aloud what they had written. “The workshop was great, and those students loved it. Many of them ended up coming back to NWU as students after finishing high school.”

After serving as a Professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan for 35 years, William Kloefkorn retired in 1997. He continued to teach part-time until 2002 and held professor emeritus status until his death on May 19, 2011. After Kloefkorn’s passing, nearly 800 people across the community attended his memorial at Nebraska Wesleyan showcasing the profound impact he had across the community. While William Kloefkorn may no longer be with the NWU and Lincoln community in person, he continues to support students in their education through the impact he left on his peers and past students.

The late Ruth Meyer (’64) was one of the many individuals inspired by Kloefkorn to support students’ experiences with creative writing. Kloefkorn served as Ruth’s mentor and dedicated his poem titled “Leaving the Home Place” to her. After graduating from NWU, Ruth went on to earn a Master of Arts from Wichita State University, a Doctorate in English and later became a professor herself. Upon her passing in 2018, Ruth left her estate and belongings to NWU as a way to give back for the education and support Kloefkorn provided her as an NWU student. Ruth’s contributions include the endowment of the Ruth Meyer Scholarships and Ruth Meyer Flintlock Prizes. The Ruth Meyer Scholarships provide financial support to two students per year who major in English and have a proven ability and interest in creative writing. Ruth Meyer Flintlock prizes recognize up to three students’ outstanding submissions to the Flintlock and provide support for costs associated with publishing the Flintlock.

Besides providing support for students specifically majoring in English, Ruth left a bequest to endow the William C. Kloefkorn Nebraska Writers Series. The Nebraska Writers Series occurs twice every academic year and brings to NWU writers born or raised in Nebraska and those who currently live in Nebraska or write about Nebraska. When the Nebraska Writers Series began on April 15, 2014, Twyla Hansen, who completed Kloefkorn’s “Introduction to Poetry” course and succeeded Kloefkorn as Nebraska’s State Poet, served as the inaugural lecturer. In addition to giving a public reading of their work, visiting writers often visit classes and join students at dinners. In their classroom visits, writers provide students with feedback on their writing, have a Q&A session about their careers and discuss their unique writing craft.

English Department Chair and Professor of English Dr. Bradford Tice frequently observes the benefits and life-changing experiences the William C. Kloefkorn Nebraska Writers Series provides NWU students. “In general, students seem very inspired by the work our visiting writers are doing. I have my students write creative homages to the writer’s work, and they’re often creating fantastic responses. In addition, we’ve had several students apply to graduate schools in English and creative writing because writers who have visited campus teach at the institution and encouraged them to apply.”

Along with remembering Kloefkorn’s contributions to NWU, the Lincoln community continues to remember Kloefkorn’s work with young students through the establishment of the Lincoln Public School, Kloefkorn Elementary. The groundbreaking for Kloefkorn Elementary took place three days after Kloefkorn’s death and opened its doors in August 2012. Kloefkorn’s wife of 58 years, Eloise Kloefkorn, often volunteered at Kloefkorn Elementary before COVID-19. In support of the creative writing that her husband dedicated himself to, Eloise has previously visited the students at Kloefkorn Elementary when they begin their first major creative writing assignment. During her visits, she would often provide students with their own pencils made of cedar wood similar to the pencil Kloefkorn would often carry with him.

At NWU, William Kloefkorn continues to live on through the faculty, staff and alumni whom he supported and inspired during his 40 years as an NWU professor. As a man known for his authenticity, creativity and dedication to students, he left a legacy that continues to impact future generations of NWU students.

The authentic relationships and innovative education NWU professors like William Kloefkorn provide are supported by parents, alumni and friends of NWU like Ruth Meyer. The Archway Fund, NWU’s annual operating budget, allows today’s NWU professors to continue to provide students with the resources and support they need to have life-changing experiences throughout their education.

William Kloefkorn will forever be remembered for his love of poetry and his dedication to supporting students in their creative writing journeys. As the NWU community keeps Kloefkorn’s legacy alive, we remember the words of one of Kloefkorn’s favorite poets, Mark Twain.

“Warm summer sun,

                Shine Kindly here,

Warm southern wind,

                Blow softly here.

Green sod above,

                Lie light, lie light.

Good night, dear heart,

                Good night, good night”

—“Warm Summer Sun” by Mark Twain

 Story by Madison Laake ('23)