An emotional message -- part thank you, part goodbye -- from the widow of famed poet Robert White Creeley began a memorial celebration held in his honor at the University at Buffalo Thursday afternoon.
"If I don't do this quickly, I won't be able to," said Penelope H. Creeley, walking to the front of a room packed with some 200 people. "Dear Buffalo," she said, her voice breaking, "We had great times here. It was a wonderful place to bring up our children. Robert loved teaching here -- he loved all of you."
"I know Robert's rooting for us all," she said.
Creeley, a foremost American poet known around the world, died March 30 of pneumonia in Odessa, Texas, while visiting there as a writer in residence. He was 78.
For 37 years, the prolific and much-lauded Creeley lived in Black Rock and taught and wrote at UB -- until 2003, when he left Buffalo to take a position at Brown University in his native New England.
At the memorial event, held in UB's Poetry and Rare Books Room, many who knew Creeley read from his work and offered anecdotes and recollections of the man -- whom they recalled as warm and generous, alive and curious, and fundamentally down to earth.
UB English professor Robert Daly remembered the night when Creeley unexpectedly showed up at an evening class Daly was teaching -- and in which Penelope was a student. Penelope couldn't come, Creeley explained. Could he sit in and take notes for her?
"For 2 hours and 40 minutes he took notes on James Fenimore Cooper's 'Last of the Mohicans,' " said Daly, amid much laughter. "I think this is the most compelling evidence imaginable for the depth of his love for her."
Art Efron, another longtime colleague of Creeley's in UB's English Department, recalled running into a frustrated Creeley one day as the poet was leaving a meeting on campus. Efron offered him a book. "He kissed me on the neck," said Efron. "It was a wonderful moment."
Graduate students spoke of being inspired by Creeley -- of choosing to come to UB because he was there, of talking with him, of keeping in touch with him over the years through e-mail.
"What a connector and a bridger he was," said Jonathan Skinner, who studied under Creeley.
For Morgan Claxton, who met Creeley while attending Nichols School with Creeley's children, Hannah and Will, the event was a chance to pay tribute to a kind man who always took an interest in the thoughts and poems of a young writer.
"He was not only a great poet, but a good man," said Claxton, a Middleport resident. "Mr. Creeley was a good friend and my hero. I think he would have appreciated today very much. He would want us to go on and keep reading -- keep learning."