Poet Eberhart’s affair with words started in Austin

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 6, 2000

Friday, October 06, 2000

As one grows older, often the mind’s pictures of youthful adventures grow sharper than more recent happenings.

Such is the case with Richard Eberhart, Austin native, America’s poet. Awarded every major American poetry award, including the Pulitzer and the Bollingen, he started his writing in Austin. The 96-year-old now lives in a retirement community in Hanover, N.H., where he still likes to scribble poetry in the night, but he recalls his hometown of Austin fondly.

Email newsletter signup

On one of several visits to Eberhart in Hanover, Austin residents Pat and Richard Nicolai got a first-hand account of some of the poet’s youthful escapades. Both centered around the large old barn that used to sit on the family’s 40-acre property – the Eberhart family home was an 18-room mansion overtaken by what is now Burr Oak Manor nursing home – where he and his friends used to smoke and wonder about the female half of the human race.

Eberhart, less than an ‘A’ student at Austin High School, made his contribution in the arena of the extracurricular. In his biography, written in 1971 by Joel Roache, Eberhart’s sister commented that her big brother "practically ran the school." Eberhart played saxophone in the school orchestra, sang in the chorus, was president of his junior class, president of the Debating League, captain of the football team and editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

He wrote in his journals about escapades with the "chaps," smoking in the barn, club meetings, picnics, dances and "big eats."

He started writing poetry when he "fell madly in love" with Alfred Lord Tennyson at the age of 15 or 16.

"I’ve been writing poetry ever since," he said.

Eberhart’s history in Austin has its dark side, however. His father, Alpha LaRue Eberhart, was a self-made success story, a man who worked his way up to vice president at Hormel Foods Corp.

The security of wealth didn’t continue for the Eberhart family. In the summer following Eberhart’s 1921 AHS graduation, the famous R.J. Thompson embezzlement was discovered. Thompson, a trusted lieutenant of Hormel management, had embezzled more than $1.5 million over an eight-year period. Overnight, A.L. Eberhart lost almost $209,000 on paper and the confidence of the Hormel family, for failing to detect the embezzlement. He resigned in early 1922.

Over the same period, Eberhart’s mother was dying of lung cancer. The young man stayed home from university for a year to nurse his mother, finally going to the University of Minnesota after she died the following summer. He kept a daily journal throughout his mother’s illness; several entries were later published – almost verbatim – as poems.

After her death, he went to Dartmouth on a scholarship and later to Cambridge University in England. In the 20 years following his university career as a student and prior to his career as a professor, Eberhart worked a variety of jobs. He was a sailor, a tutor, a teacher of adolescent boys, an executive in a shoe polish company and a slaughterhouse laborer for three months. While he coveted a university position, Eberhart had more success publishing poetry for the first half of his life. In the second half he had success with both, teaching and occupying the post of poet in residence at Dartmouth.

He has been back to Austin several times; in 1971, on the 50th anniversary of his graduation from AHS, he returned to deliver the commencement address.

When Pat Nicolai phoned earlier this year to tell Eberhart of his high school’s plan to name the school’s media center after him, he expressed his pleasure with the words of a poet.

"It makes me weep with delight," he said.

Eberhart will not make the trip to Austin, but his daughter, Gretchen, and son, Dikkon, will represent him through stories and videotape at the dedication ceremony scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in Knowlton Auditorium.