Robert Kirkpatrick, Noted English Professor, Dies at 64

Robert G. Kirkpatrick Jr., an associate professor of English at UNC, died Feb. 24 from complications of surgery. He was 64.

Kirkpatrick, who came to UNC in 1967, taught graduate and undergraduate Romantic poetry, British literature and honors poetry writing. He was director of the London Summer Honors Seminar and an undergraduate adviser in the Honors College. He recently had been assisting in the translation of the poetry of Tong-gyu Hwang, South Korea’s leading poet.

“Literature was a passion for him that communicated the essence of what it meant to be a human being,” William L. Andrews, former chairman of the English department, told The News & Observer. “Literature was the fullest expression of our humanity, and he conveyed that to his students. They may have forgotten the books they read, the poems, the plays. But they remembered his examples of what you can find in literature, how it would resonate, what it would mean to you as a person.”

A native of Charlotte, Kirkpatrick earned his undergraduate degree from Erskine College in South Carolina and received his master’s and doctorate in English literature from Harvard, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. At UNC, he began teaching poetry writing to freshmen in 1970, and he became one of the most popular and decorated teachers in the English department, receiving a Tanner Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching in 1975.

He also received the Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing in 1987, the Students’ Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1994 and was Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Associate Professor of English from 1995 to 1998.

In 2003, he was inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece and was chosen to deliver the keynote speech. He has been nominated posthumously for a Sanders Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

A published poet, for the past 15 years, he hosted a poetry workshop at his house that was open to all. In respect for his students and for his profession, he rewrote every lecture for every class every year. He believed in the primacy of the text, and it was his conviction that understanding could only come through complete engagement of both mind and heart.

In the words of a friend, Kirkpatrick was unshakably optimistic and fearless in the defense of reason. In 2002, he participated in a seminar led by Michael Sells at Duke University on Serbian and Muslim political poetry. That same year, as chair of UNC’s first-year reading committee, he advocated for the inclusion of Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an in the summer reading program. This selection sparked a nationwide political debate on the nature of academic freedom. He publicly defended UNC’s choice of reading and, in the words of Professor James Thompson, his department’s chairman, “by extension, the University’s very mission, with patience, intelligence and grace. In short, he made us all proud.”

Kirkpatrick is survived by his wife of 40 years, Pamela Patterson Kirkpatrick ’61. He is survived by his son, Robert G. Kirkpatrick III ’93 of Somerville, Massachusetts and his daughter, Pamela J. Kirkpatrick, a senior at UNC. Memorials may be directed to Roger Petrich at St. Thomas More Church, to encourage traditional sacred music, or to the UNC Honors Program, c/o The Arts and Sciences Foundation, to support students’ participation in Study Abroad.

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