Someone to Guide Us

Nadine St. Louis was very kind to me over the years.  She was a professor, a poet, and co-founder of the local book festival.  I last spoke with her the day I participated in a road race she and her husband organized.

The following remembrance was composed by poet and all-around wood-splitter Alan Jenkins:

Speaking of legacy, it is not uncommon for people to adopt a reverent, respectful tone.  We seem to know intuitively that legacy links us to significant contributors who have preceded us.  A legacy is not necessarily tangible or visible as, for example, Schofield Hall, or more recently, Phoenix Park.  In truth, much of the legacy of our country is intangible, but that does not restrain us from speaking with reverence about freedom or the pursuit of equality.

In Eau Claire, we are blessed with a vibrant literary culture.  One need not look far to find evidence in the works of respected writers in a variety of genre.  Yet, this legacy is more than a collection of writers.  It is an atmosphere in which literature is cultivated and appreciated.  This atmosphere has been revitalized in the past 15 years.  For those who love literature, the contributions of two individuals certainly come to mind.

Norma Desprez and Nadine S. (“Dina”) St. Louis may fairly be said to be giants of local culture in recent years.  Sadly, each of them passed on this year.  Remembering them reveals their significant legacy.

Norma Desprez passed on April 25 after a stroke.  Nearly 90, Norma was called to poetry after a salutary life of 75 years.  Through her two books of poetry and numerous readings in and outside Eau Claire, Norma proved herself to be an exemplar, one who had lived fully and gained profound wisdom.

She exemplified what has come to be known as “the Greatest Generation,” tested by the Great Depression, World War II, and in her case, the struggle for women’s rights.  A three-time survivor of cancer, she offered her work in poetry with humility, candor and a sharp, occasionally self-effacing wit.

Norma inspired young and old alike with her often biographical poems.  At one reading, I witnessed a woman declare with great emotion that Norma’s first book, Soliloquy, helped her survive after the death of her husband.  Never let it be said that poetry cannot save lives.

Like Norma, Dina St. Louis was an inspiration to many.  With no intention to draw a contrast between these two remarkable women, it must be said that Dina added another dimension to the life of poetry in Eau Claire.

As a teacher and skilled organizer, Dina turned her keen intelligence, personal communications talents, and subtle but incisive wit to many projects.  Her list of achievements in her distinguished university career is extraordinary, and her work in the greater community strengthened the literary arts for years to come.

As co-founder of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, participant in The Vision and The Word series, mentor in the South Middle School Writers Workshop series, author of two volumes of poetry, participant at countless readings, and advisor to many writers, Dina was selfless and generous.

Few knew she gave her time and energy during the past eight years while battling a virulent form of cancer.  At last, she revealed her situation in Zebra, her brilliant second volume of poetry.  On September 29, 157 days after her friend Norma, Dina passed into the next world.

Certainly, many of us mourn the passing of these two exceptional women, as well we should.  But, upon reflection, we might draw a page from their verse and turn to a celebration of life.  Yes, we have lost two leading literary figures, but their legacy, living around and within us, reminds us how we ourselves might live.

– Alan Jenkins, poet and essayist, is co-founder of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, the South Middle School Writers Workshop series, and The Vision and The Word series.

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