Donna Gerstenberger, a nationally known scholar of 20th-century literature and a former chairwoman of the University of Washington English department, died Jan. 16 in Tucson, Ariz., of complications from a stroke. She was 82.
When she was selected to head the University of Washington’s Faculty Senate, Donna Gerstenberger used her inaugural address to express her worry about a trend in American education — that of the need to “market” the university and align it more closely to business and industry.
“Our value is in being what we are and doing what we do, not the least of which is teaching students the value of a mind full of many things,” Professor Gerstenberger told her colleagues.
A nationally known scholar of 20th-century literature and a former chairwoman of the UW’s English department, Professor Gerstenberger died Jan. 16 of complications from a stroke during a vacation in Tucson, Ariz. She was 82.
She came to the UW in 1960, after getting her Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, and later became a dean of undergraduate education.
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Her Faculty Senate inaugural speech, given in 1985, has been remembered — and saved — for years by many faculty members because it seemed so prescient, said Judith Howard, divisional dean of social sciences for the College of Arts & Sciences.
Howard said Professor Gerstenberger had a “a very keen intelligence,” and her students adored her. “She had a great sense of warmth” underneath a slightly gruff demeanor, Howard said.
Professor Gerstenberger was a “warm person with high expectations,” said Frances McCue, a writer in residence in the undergraduate honors program at the UW. The professor was a good friend of the poet Richard Hugo, and he called her “the resident human being in the English department” at the UW, McCue said — a droll way of expressing how the professor conducted her work with sanity and grace among what could be big egos in the academic world, McCue said.
She was “formidable,” McCue said — “a little sharp sometimes,” but very approachable. “Just kind of a mensch.”
As a teacher, she used a combination of lectures and in-depth discussions with her students to draw out their understanding of literature, said Carolyn Allen, a professor of English at the UW. Allen described her as a “fabulous teacher.”
“She’d find ways to surface all kinds of issues from the literature and cajole the students into taking responsibility for making each class interesting and relevant,” McCue said.
She was a mentor to many women faculty members at the university, and had a special interest in gender and women’s studies, Allen said. She also helped found a literary magazine, the Seattle Review, and had a passion for Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and other experimental modernists, as well as mysteries, Allen said.
Professor Gerstenberger raised dogs, especially spaniels, and was a good golfer, Allen said. She moved to Medford, Ore., about four years ago. She is survived by her partner, Yvonne Mandorf, of Medford, and a stepsister, Sue Bergman, of Tulsa, Okla.
A celebration of Professor Gerstenberger’s life is planned for April.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or email@example.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.