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New center launches next week in name of literary giant Walker Percy

March 5, 2010

The memory and contributions of prominent Catholic-American author and former Loyola University New Orleans faculty member Walker Percy will be honored at the university through the creation of a new center bearing his name.

Loyola will launch the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing on Wednesday, March 10 at 7 p.m. in Monroe Hall’s Nunemaker Auditorium, with reminiscences of Percy by Marcus Smith, Ph.D., emeritus professor of English, and Patrick Samway, S.J., Percy’s biographer and English professor at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, Pa. Award-winning filmmaker and New Orleans native Winston Riley also will introduce a partial screening of his documentary, “Walker Percy: A Documentary Film.” Riley’s documentary recounts Percy's story with archival film, excerpts from Percy's work, and interviews with family, friends and scholars.

The inaugural event is free and open to the public.

Throughout his writing career, Percy was an advocate for young, struggling writers. In 1976 while teaching at Loyola, Percy was approached by the mother of a young, local writer who had committed suicide after failing to find a publisher for his manuscript. Percy saw promise in the piece and used his influence to reintroduce it to publishers. As a result, "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole was published in 1980 and was awarded a Pulitzer-Prize posthumously in 1981.

He also influenced many authors, including Sheila Bosworth, Christine Wiltz, Kenneth Holditch, Ellen Gilchrist, Valerie Martin and Tim Gautreaux.

The passion and advocacy for writing embraced by Percy will live on through the creation of the new Walker Percy Center, according to John Biguenet, professor of English at Loyola.

“The goal of the Walker Percy Center at Loyola is to foster literary talent and achievement, highlight the art of writing as essential to education and serve the makers, teachers, students and readers of contemporary writing by providing educational and vocational opportunities in writing and publishing,” said Biguenet.

“With one of the largest undergraduate programs in creative writing in the region, a stellar Writing Across the Curriculum Center, established publications such as the New Orleans Review, Revisions and Reader’s Response, and well-published and critically-recognized writers on faculty, Loyola is uniquely positioned to house a center of excellence in writing and publishing,” said Kate Adams, professor and chair of the English department.

Immediate plans for the center include purchasing a press to publish literary and academic texts, expanding the Loyola Writing Institute to offer fee-based, non-credit classes to the community and enhancing publications, reading series and interdisciplinary work already in place. The center will also seek writing outreach opportunities with public high school students.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Percy was orphaned as a teen and raised and influenced by his father’s cousin, William Percy, a literary socialite. While he enjoyed writing in his youth, and while he was able to mingle with the likes of Carl Sandberg and Langston Hughes, “in the South, you didn’t set out to become a writer,” said Percy in a 1980 interview.

Percy received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina in 1937 and a medical degree from Columbia University in 1941. Percy began his career by practicing pathology. His medical practice was cut short, however, after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to an asylum. While in seclusion, Percy studied the writings and philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel and others, which inspired him to resume writing and influenced his conversion to Catholicism.

In 1961, 11 years after settling in Covington, La., with his wife Mary Bernice Townsend, Percy published his first book, “The Moviegoer,” which won a National Book Award, followed five years later by the National Book Award-nominated “The Last Gentleman.” In all, he published seven major works including “Love in the Ruins,” “The Message in the Bottle,” “Lancelot,” “The Second Coming” and “Lost in the Cosmos.” These books, along with his essays and biography by Samway will be available for purchase at the March 10 inauguration.

Percy received many awards, including an honorary degree from Loyola, the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame and the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, and was a featured speaker at universities around the globe. Percy was also a writer-in-residence at Loyola during the 1970s.

To learn more about the Walker Percy Center, visit the center online at www.loyno.edu/wpc.

For more information on the Walker Percy Center or to schedule an interview, contact Sean Snyder in Loyola’s Office of Public Affairs at smsnyder@loyno.edu or call 504-861-5882.

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