A Fertile Garden of Verses
David Hedges of West Linn is honored for contributing to Oregon's literary richness
By Janet Goetze
David Hedges got good grades on English exercises, but he hated writing.
Then Laurence Pratt, a poet who taught English at Lake Oswego High School in the 1950s, walked into his classroom, and Hedges' life changed.
Hedges started writing poetry. And over the years, he's encouraged Oregonians of all ages to share the events in their lives through poetry, too.
Today (November 13, 2003), the 66-year-old will receive the Stewart H. Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contributions to Oregon's Literary Life at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony.
"Poetry is in everyone," Hedges said after a sunny morning in his West Linn garden, where he often gains inspiration for his writing. "All people have the same experiences that poets have.
"That's why they identify with poetry. They haven't tried to commit it to paper yet, but all the same emotions are there.”
Hedges was president of the Oregon State Poetry Association between 1997 and 2002. Much of his work was aimed at young people, said Jan Veile, vice president of the organization.
He helped revive a student poetry contest that has drawn entries from all 36 Oregon counties, Veile said. The winners receive medals—just like top student athletes.
Hedges also secured funding for the Family Poetry (Workshop) Project, sponsored by the poetry association and the Oregon Center for the Book (at the Oregon State Library). For seven years, the project sent Oregon poets to rural libraries, from Alsea to Enterprise. Mentors—parents, teachers, grandparents or neighbors—spent a day writing poetry with children and assembling their work in small books.
"The adults who have been mentors sometimes go to help a kid have a writing experience, but then they see the world in a different way," Hedges said. "They come out as poets, too. They realize they have poetry in themselves."
Hedges worked to increase the membership of the state poetry association from fewer than 100 to more than 400 people over the past half-dozen years, Veile said, and Hedges himself is part of the attraction.
"With his long, white beard, he's unforgettable," she said. "And he is very approachable. He can talk to the well-known poet and to the beginning poet who is trying to learn the craft."
He's willing to work hard on projects, too, said Jim Scheppke, the Oregon State librarian, who was one of those who nominated Hedges for the Holbrook award.
Scheppke, who worked with Hedges on the Family Poetry Project, said it was "a grand success, in large part because of David's insight into the poetry community in Oregon, his knowledge of which poets would be appropriate for this kind of project and his incredible hard work."
In addition to the poetry association, Hedges has served on the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission since 1988. He also has served on panels (approving) grants for Regional Arts & Culture Council projects.
Along the way, Hedges has continued to write poetry. He's won more than 100 awards and has produced three small books of poems plus a book of political satire in rhymed verse, titled Petty Frogs on the Potomac. He says he most often writes narrative poetry with rhyme and meter.
Poetry magazine is scheduled to publish one of Hedges' poems later this year. That's an event most local poets can only dream about, said Marianne Klekacz, his successor as president of the state poetry association.
What turned young Hedges, then an aspiring geologist, into a poet at the age of 15 was the voice of Pratt, a founder of the Oregon State Poetry Association in 1956 and its predecessor, the Verseweavers Poetry Society of Portland, formed in 1936.
"He walked into the classroom and, without any fuss or bother, started reciting Beowulf in Old English," Hedges said. "His voice hooked me."
By the time he graduated, Hedges had had a poem published in the National High School Poetry Anthology. He went on to study geology at Oregon State University anyway.
After three years, he realized he wasn't a scientist after all. He left school, moved to New York and wrote poems in Greenwich Village while trying to find a job. Later, he completed a liberal arts degree at Portland State University.
Hedges hasn't spent his adult life exclusively in meter and rhyme: He once made his living in politics and prose. He was a reporter and columnist for the Oregon City Enterprise-Courier and a writer and editor for several public relations agencies. He also was a public information officer for a college, a bank, Multnomah County Commissioner Mel Gordon, Les AuCoin when he was the Oregon House majority leader, and Portland City Commissioner Dick Bogle.
He's mounted some personal crusades, too, including saving the Canemah Bluff above Willamette Falls from development.
His ancestors settled in the area, Hedges said, and most of them are buried in the cemetery not far from the scenic bluff. He joined with several groups in questioning whether the Oregon City council had examined the historic and scenic values of the property, as state rules require, before approving development plans.
A developer eventually dropped his plans for the bluff, and Metro purchased the land with funds approved for open spaces.
Hedges, like a lot of writers, had been working on a novel for several years when he decided to take the time to finish it in 1992.
"Six weeks later," he said, "I was creamed in an automobile accident."
For nearly three years he couldn't write at all as he dealt with pain and rehabilitation. His wife, Scottie Sterrett, an administrative assistant to the president of Portland Community College, and their six children (by previous marriages), helped him through his ordeal.
"When I started getting my energy back," he said, "I saw a need to get the Oregon State Poetry Association back on its feet."
He volunteered to serve as president for a year and stayed for six. He stepped down as president last year, but he's still on the board.
Hedges hopes to continue inspiring new poets, but he doesn’t want to see students pressured into reading poetry.
"If you don't force kids to appreciate poetry," he said, "they will."
[Published in The Oregonian on November 13, 2003. Photo by Robert Bach, The Oregonian]
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