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Julia Randall

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Julia Randall

NORTH BENNINGTON -- Julia Randall, distinguished poet, teacher and environmental activist, died at her home in North Bennington on Sunday. The cause was heart disease. Miss Randall, 81, had lived in North Bennington since 1987 and had been a strong advocate for the preservation of open space and other environmental causes.

Miss Randall’s seven volumes of poetry won numerous national awards and recognition, including the 1987 Poet’s Prize. In 1980, the American Poetry Society presented her the prestigious Percy Bysshe Shelley Award for her body of work. She also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Sewannee Review fellowship in poetry.

Though she maintained a quiet life, far from literary conferences and competitions, Randall won the friendship and respect of many of her peers, including such noted poets as the late Josephine Jacobsen and George Garrett, poet laureate of Virginia. The late Howard Nemerov, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S. Poet Laureate, publicly welcomed one of Randall’s early books, “The Puritan Carpenter,” by declaring, “I had been getting glumly used to the notion that lyrical poetry was over for the present ... And then came this beautiful collection ... Praise to the end!”

A native of Baltimore, Md., Miss Randall first moved to Vermont in the 1940s, when she attended Bennington College. For her, the college represented not only an educational opportunity, but a chance to rebel against the debutante balls and society card parties she had been raised to attend. Studies in literature and science led to a year at Harvard Medical School and to work as a technician in the Harvard biological laboratory. In 1950, she received her master’s degree in English from Johns Hopkins and embarked on a long career of teaching literature at the college level. In 1952, she married Ken Sawyer, an art critic for The Baltimore Sun. They moved to Paris for a few years, during which she taught at the University of Maryland’s overseas extension. The couple’s tiny coldwater flat was the site of frequent parties for American artists, including painter Mark Rothko and sculptor Claire Falkenstein.

Returning to Baltimore, Miss Randall taught at Goucher College, the Peabody Conservatory and Towson University. She divorced in 1962. For 10 years, she was an assistant professor of English at Hollins University in Roanoake, Va. The many students she mentored at Hollins included such notable writers as Annie Dillard. In those years, Randall occupied what she described as “a cabin on the back of the Hollins Campus.” Her house overlooked a hillside dairy, whose wandering cows came by and licked her VW bug perfectly clean every day. She was a dedicated teacher who devoted her spare time and holidays to writing poetry in blue ballpoint pen at the kitchen table.

Retiring from teaching in 1973, Miss Randall moved to the Maryland countryside and dedicated her time to writing poetry and to environmental activism, especially establishing preservation ordinances for the Long Green Valley. In 1987, personal connections and Vermont’s commitment to environmental matters drew her back to North Bennington.

Her volumes of poetry are: “The Solstice Tree” (1952), “Mimic August” (1960), “The Puritan Carpenter” (1965), “Adam’s Dream” (1969), “The Farewells” (1981), “Moving in Memory” (1987) for which she received the Poet’s Prize, and “The Path to Fairview” (1992). In recent years, she made relatively few public appearances but gave poetry readings at the Library of Congress and The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University.

”Her wit and passion, the verbal beauty and formal balance of each poem combined to make a distinctive voice which asked the reader to enjoy her singing and, at the same time, think,” poet Stephen Sandy, a retired Bennington College literature professor, said Wednesday.

Miss Randall is survived by her sister-in-law, art historian Lilian Randall of Milton, Mass.; her nephew, Christopher Randall of Boston; her niece, Julia Randall of Oakland, Calif.; and her niece, Kate Randall of Tucson, Ariz. Her brother, Richard H. Randall, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, died in 1997. Plans for a memorial service in Bennington are in progress.

Published in Bennington Banner from May 23 to May 26, 2005
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