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BEHIND THE GREAT BOOKS, A CLASS OF HER OWN

Rita Green Lipsitz is a diminutive 72-year-old who has spent the past 27 years nurturing literary giants.

John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Robert Creeley, J.M. Coetzee, Anthony Burgess, Irving Feldman -- every member, in fact, of the University at Buffalo's English department since 1970 has been under her administrative care.

"I see Rita as the soul of the English department -- and if not its soul, its heart," said English Professor Mili N. Clark.

Mrs. Lipsitz retired Tuesday as senior staff assistant in the department that, in the 1960s and 1970s, was well-known throughout the world -- and today remains one of the finest English departments in the United States.

"When I came, the department had 75 faculty members and 120 teaching fellows," she recalled.

"Those were the days. There was so much money, they didn't know how to spend it fast enough."

Today, the UB English department has 49 faculty members and 65 teaching assistants, Mrs. Lipsitz noted.

Leslie A. Fiedler, the acclaimed author and critic who turned 80 in March, is among them.

"He is still here three mornings a week -- directing dissertations," Mrs. Lipsitz said. "His door is always open to students. I think they keep him young."

Fiedler, despite his renown, "never made demands, never threw his weight around at all," Mrs. Lipsitz noted.

Like Fiedler, novelist John Barth "was never a prima donna," she added. "The bigger they were, the nicer they were."

From the days of typewriters to the daze of computers, and the move from the South to the North Campus, Mrs. Lipsitz has overseen the English department's budget and course schedule.

"When you schedule courses, you tell people where to go, when to go and what to do when they get there
-- it's like being a mother," she mused.

One of her first chores at UB "was to try to get Gregory Corso paid," she recalled of the Beat Generation poet who was one of several department members who refused to sign the then-required Fineberg Oath stating he was not a Communist.

"There was supposedly no paycheck without signing the oath," she said.

A 1946 graduate of the university, where she majored in history and government, the former Rita Green subbed as a history teacher (mostly at Lafayette High School, also her alma mater) for two years before taking time off to raise two sons and a daughter.

From 1960 to 1969, the wife of Buffalo attorney Richard Lipsitz Sr. also volunteered at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where she was co-founder of the docent program.

She came to UB as administrative assistant to the head of the English department at the behest of then-chairman Marcus Klein.

Albert Cook, now an emeritus professor at Brown University, was still on board -- as was Oscar Silverman, another former longtime chairman of the department whose name lives on in UB's Oscar A. Silverman Undergraduate Library and Oscar Silverman Memorial Reading.

"Al Cook 'made' the department," Mrs. Lipsitz said. "He had brought a lot of the faculty who stayed until they started peeling off a few years ago."

Robert Haas, who was to become U.S. poet laureate, and J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist who was to place high on the list for the Nobel Prize for literature, were also members -- as was Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley, now Capen Professor of Poetry and Humanities at the university and former poet laureate of New York State.

Mrs. Lipsitz recalled the semester the popular British author Anthony Burgess, best remembered for "A Clockwork Orange," had an office near hers:

"If I had to talk to him, I would go into his office -- and he would be banging away at his typewriter. He would tear the paper out, put it straight into a manuscript box and send it off. He told me his editors would take care of any problems."

Over the years, Mrs. Lipsitz has scheduled about 200 courses a semester -- and, in recent years, about 25 a summer.

"Summers used to be much bigger," she said. "We were bringing in seven or eight visiting professors a summer. It was the summer program that brought Leslie Fiedler here."

These days, the big department "draws" include Diane Christian, a State University of New York distinguished teaching professor known for her courses in mythology, the Bible and Blake; Robert J. Daley, another distinguished teaching professor known for his courses in American and 17th century British literature, and Neil Schmitz, also a professor of American literature.

Mrs. Lipsitz also singled out Charles Bernstein, David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters; Carl Dennis; Raymond Federman; Victor Doyno; Mark Shechner; Susan Howe, and a number of other young members of the current department.

She paid tribute to Mac S. Hammond, poet and professor emeritus, who died in July.

Said Kenneth M. Dauber, department chairman:

"I just don't know of anyone who cares more about this department and university than Rita. She has always believed in the public research university and education as a public responsibility.

"She has turned this (department) into a family which sort of spirals out from Clemens Hall into the whole area around her. Faculty and students alike come to her to find their place. She has been magnificent in helping us all find our way."

Said Mrs. Lipsitz, a 1995 recipient of the Chancellor's Award for excellence in professional service:

"Leaving all this is one of the hardest things I have ever done."

But, in leaving, the inimitable Mrs. Lipsitz is coming back -- as she puts it, "in another hat."

"I've been doing some ad hoc counseling of senior auditors -- people over 60 who come to audit classes for free," she said.

"I'm going to set up in another office and be here a day or two a week setting up senior auditing for various departments. People are retiring older and healthier. They need stimulation, and there sure is stimulation here."

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