January 13th, 2014
Today we celebrate the life and work of Louise McNeill Pease, a noted twentieth century Appalachian poet and author, poet laureate of West Virginia from 1979 to 1993, and professor of history and English. She was born on January 9, 1911 in Buckeye, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Her writings and personal papers are held in the West Virginia and Regional History Center in A&M collections 2215 and 3201.
Louise McNeill grew up on the family farm, started writing poetry as a child, and began teaching in Pocahontas County after she graduated high school in 1927. Throughout her career, she wrote under her maiden name and published her material in books and national journals. She also pursued her education, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Concord College in Athens, West Virginia (1936), a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University in Ohio (1938), and winning a scholarship to the Bread Loaf School of English in Middlebury, Vermont (summer of 1938). Following that, she taught in South Carolina before returning to West Virginia for her career as a professor of English and history.
McNeill taught English at WVU from 1948 to 1953, and then she studied here, earning her doctorate in history in 1959.
She continued teaching in West Virginia at Potomac State College (1959-1962), Concord College (1962-1967), and Fairmont State College (1969-1973) before retiring in 1973. She also continued writing, earning praise from fellow Appalachian author Jesse Stuart in his 1964 letter to her – “Girl, there’s genius in you…you are a first class poet.”
In February of 1989, WVU recognized her accomplishments by inducting her into the Academy of Distinguished Alumni; in May of that year, WVU awarded her an honorary Doctorate in the Humanities.
After receiving the honorary degree, she wrote a touching letter of thanks to WVU’s President at the time, Neil Bucklew, touching on her favorite moments of her visit
“From the large shrimp at the dinner to the hooding, the colorful medieval pageant, the joyful young graduates, the security men giving me the wheelchair power to race through the crowds…”
and the fulfillment of a youthful promise to herself.
“When I was 16 years old, I made some kind of childish but serious compact that I would become a poet and keep on forever trying to be a good one. You can understand what I felt sitting there on the platform as the banners floated above the aisles.”
McNeill’s life and work are also commemorated in a Literary Landmarks Registry plaque, hung on the façade of the old Charles C. Wise, Jr. Library (now the 2nd floor atrium). Hers is one of only two such landmarks in West Virginia (the other is Pearl Buck’s birthplace). The Literary Landmarks project, administered by United for Libraries, was founded to encourage the dedication of historic literary sites, including homes of famous writers, libraries and museum collections, literary scenes, and more. The WVRHC houses the papers of Louise McNeill Pease as part of our effort to preserve and provide access to our state’s literary, political, economic, cultural, and social history.
Blog post by Jane Metters, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.