Obituary: Lewis A. Nordan | Engaging writer, teacher penned novels and short stories on South
It was hard to tell the line between fact and fiction in the stories of Lewis A. "Buddy" Nordan, whether in his much-acclaimed writing, his popular classroom instruction or the playful, witty manner that accompanied his low-key Southern drawl socially.
In the end, that line didn't matter much to those who knew the Mississippi novelist and former University of Pittsburgh creative writing professor. He was so good at winning admiration and laughter from readers and listeners alike that they were just happy to be his audience.
"He felt every story was true, if it was good enough," said Chuck Kinder of Squirrel Hill, a longtime friend since Mr. Nordan joined him on Pitt's English Department faculty in 1983.
Mr. Nordan, who retired from teaching in 2005 and wrote a memoir in 2000 as his last published book, died Friday of complications from pneumonia at University Hospital in Cleveland. He was 72.
He and his wife, Alicia Blessing Nordan, relocated two years ago from Sewickley to the Laurel Lake Retirement Community in Hudson, Ohio, as he continued a progressive decline from peripheral neuropathy. He had been diagnosed with the neurological disease before his Pitt retirement. The couple previously lived in Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze.
His condition impaired Mr. Nordan's ability to write late in life, but he leaves behind four novels and multiple short-story collections through which he made his own mark in the field of Southern lit, weaving magical yarns about small-town life and characters and hard truths about race relations in places similar to his little hometown of Itta Bena, Miss.
His most successful novel, "Wolf Whistle," which won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and other honors, dealt with one of the most notorious race-motivated murders of the civil rights era, the death of teenager Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman.
Mr. Nordan was well into his 40s by the time any of his works were published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which has particular interest in Southern writers. He had a bachelor's degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., a master's degree from Mississippi State University and a doctorate from Auburn University, but life had hardly been a success.
Before arriving in Pittsburgh, he had been an alcoholic who went stretches without working. An infant son died hours after birth. He admitted to no shortage of adultery, and his first marriage ended in divorce. By the time Mr. Kinder met him in 1983, however, Mr. Nordan had recently quit drinking. He dazzled the faculty reviewing his application to join them at Pitt with his mix of scholarship, humor and writing ability.
"He gave a reading, and everyone was, to be frank, blown away," English professor Lynn Emanuel recalled. "He was just so lively. ... He wore his learning very lightly and was extremely irreverent and very funny and extremely personable."
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover attended a number of Mr. Nordan's readings, where the author was one of the few writers who could be as entertaining in person as in print. Mr. Nordan had a gift for mimicry to go along with a homespun, self-deprecating manner, and natural storytelling ability.
"I know he encountered much personal tragedy in his life, but he never mentioned it directly in his work or in person, preferring instead [to] engage his readers with gentle, at times outlandish, humor that was neither mawkishly sentimental nor self-pitying," Mr. Hoover said. "While he might have been typecast as a 'Southern writer,' Buddy Nordan's work spoke to everyone."
In addition to "Wolf Whistle" and his memoir, "Boy With Loaded Gun," his other novels were "Music of the Swamp," "The Sharpshooter Blues" and "Lightning Song." His short stories were collected in "Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair," "The All-Girl Football Team" and "Sugar Among the Freaks."
One of Mr. Nordan's cult followers was within Algonquin Press itself, where he was revered despite the fact that he was never quite as commercially successful as he deserved, said Elisabeth Scharlatt, Algonquin publisher.
"He was an original," she said. "His books, from the beginning, received some of the best and most interesting reviews of any author we've published."
While his fame grew during his 22 years of tenure in Pitt's English Department, his ego did not. Colleagues and students alike saw him as a generous mentor who showed an interest in assisting others.
Jane McCafferty, a Carnegie Mellon University English professor and writer who took courses from Mr. Nordan at Pitt in the 1980s, remembers that while he often had her in stitches, he "also had a very serious side, if you got to know him well. ... He listened really hard to students. He was somebody who had struggled in his own personal life, and he was very willing to extend himself to others as a listener, and somebody who was always encouraging other people."
As his neurological condition worsened and he suffered other health ailments, Mr. Nordan did not keep in close touch with many who knew him in Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to know that his unfinished final novel, which he was reduced to typing with a single index finger as he lost full use of his hands, was not about the South.
It was about Pittsburgh, a place he had grown to love as his adopted home. The ending is unwritten, but any final line probably would have had a tough time topping his closing from his first novel, "Music of the Swamp":
"There is great pain in all love, but we don't care. It's worth it."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Nordan is survived by three sons, Lewis E. Nordan of Gaithersburg, Md., Josh Conn of State College and Adam Conn of Columbus, Ohio; and six grandchildren.
A Pittsburgh memorial service is to be announced later this spring. A small service is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Laurel Lake Retirement Community, 200 Laurel Lake Drive, Hudson.
Memorial contributions may be sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104; or to Alcoholics Anonymous, 900 Fifth Ave., 5th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.
First Published April 17, 2012 12:00 am