Lee McCarthy
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Lee McCarthy Lee McCarthy, a poet and writer who taught the school children of Kern County for more than three decades and then spent the latter part of her life bringing world class poetry to Bakersfield, died on March 21 at the age of 70. A native of Arkansas, she attended the University of Tennessee, where she met a struggling writer named Cormac McCarthy who asked her to marry him. They moved to a shack with no heat and running water in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains outside of Knoxville. There they had a son, Cullen, in 1962. While caring for the baby and tending to the chores of the house, Lee was asked by Cormac to also get a day job so he could focus on his novel writing. Dismayed with the situation, she moved to Wyoming, where she filed for divorce and landed her first job teaching. After two years, she moved to the Bakersfield area in 1966 and began teaching in McFarland. She left to obtain her Masters Degree at San Francisco State University and then returned to Kern County. For the next 31 years, she was a fixture at Wasco Union High School, teaching teenagers and eventually their children about the great works of literature. Lee was an adamant defender of the right to free expression. She led a landmark censorship case against the school district, a case still cited in Educational law. In 1993, she received the Arts Council of Kern, Individual Arts Educator Award. She was a recognized writer and poet receiving a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University in 1975. She was co-recipient of the Nicholas Roerich prize in poetry in 1991 for her collection, Desire's Door, and the winner of the Ion Books National Chapbook Competition in 1992 for Combing Hair with a Seashell. Three books of her poems have been published: Desire's Door, Combing Hair with a Seashell and Good Girl. Her work appeared in a variety of reviews and publications including Orpheus, Great River Review, Solo, Third Coast, Daybreak, Pangolin, High Plains Literary Review, Raccoon, Arizona Literary Magazine, Burnt Sienna and Intro 8. In later years, she organized and funded a poetry reading series in Bakersfield that brought some of the most respected poets in the nation to town including Ted Kooser, Frank Bidart, Richard Shelton and Philip Levine. She was a single mother raising a child at a time when it was an exception. She was tough because she had to be. Underneath, she was as gracious, as giving and as funny as they come. She is survived by her sister, her son and her two grandchildren. No Services.

This obituary was originally published in the Bakersfield Californian.

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Published in Bakersfield Californian on Mar. 29, 2009.
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13 entries
December 16, 2020
Lee was a talented poet and a terrific advocate for poetry, freedom of speech and individual rights. She was smart, fierce and funny, one of the most exquisite people I've ever known.
Robert McDowell
Friend
April 27, 2015
It's nice to see that I am not the only one still mourning the loss of this wonderful human being. She played a huge role in shaping me as a person.

If anyone knows the whereabouts of her grave or similar memorial, or would simply like to reminisce, I would appreciate hearing from you.

GB WUHS Class of 1982
Gregory Buchler
March 21, 2015
I pulled Desire's Door down from my bookshelf and began reading it again today. Each time I open it I realize you are still teaching.
Michelle
June 9, 2012
Two years since Lee's death and the memories of her passion and her intellect are indelible. The girl had "standards" and she knew good work and she knew good people. We were the fortunate ones...for the grace and pleasure of her impish humor, her rapier wit, her caustic repartee when there was a fool within sight. We were the lucky ones...to know her poetry, her letters, her readings. The world is less interesting without her. We are less interesting without her.
Sharon Patterson
October 19, 2011
L
March 6, 2010
Lee was a great intellect and inspiration. She loved literature, words, ideas, writing. She was passionate and brilliant. I loved to talk with her. Our lunches always ran at least three hours as we had everything from poetry to our southern roots to talk about. That fabulous voice, her laugh, her wit, her capacity for great joy and intellectual banter were most appreciated. She has left a great void in Bakersfield and the writing world and we all miss her!! Nancy Edwards Bakersfield, California
Nancy Edwards
November 6, 2009
Please accept my condolence for your loss of Lee; it is our loss as well.

I found this obituary because I had been thinking of her for almost a year, and decided to contact her with gratitude regarding our time together in the early 1970's.

She was a shining star in what was often the drab grey classrooms of WUHS. Full of the fire of life, drive, purpose and determination; thoughtful and inspiring.

By encouraging me to enter a national poetry competition, she was the only person that moved me beyond the confines of a small dusty town to greater possibilities. I agreed to enter and asked a friend to type the poems for submittal. The day came to post them and Lee asked me where they were. I told her they had not been returned to me and she actually took me from the classroom, found my friend's classroom, brought her to the hall, and demanded to know where the poems were. My friend had not typed them and began crying. I said, "That's alright." and Lee immediately retorted, "It certainly is NOT alright!"

Her frustration was obvious. She was attempting to show me a beautiful new world and all I could see was a girl that failed me crying. I am deeply saddened that I will now never be allowed to share that world with her. But I will acquire her books, and hold them closely to my chest, as I close my eyes between pages and consider, how beautiful are the expressions of her thoughts...
Kenneth Tackett
October 19, 2009
Cullen, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Please know you are much in my thoughts.
Jennifer Evans Altenhofel
April 22, 2009
We all remember the great teachers and friends and family who molded us and helped us to grow. They made sacrifices for us and saw something valuable where others did not. For that we owe them greatly. But the story does not end there. Today each of us carries on their legacy. Just as much as Ms. McCarthy's hands reach to lift us up, they still cling to us to carry her spirit where we will take it. She did not give unconditionally. The condition was that you and I would do something with what was given. And we all know that will be no small task.
Nate Siemens
April 19, 2009
I recall her telling me that I did not belong in B level english and thought I should try the honors class. Funny, because I always thought that it was her that didn't belong teaching in a small podunk of a town. Many didn't realize how lucky we were to have her in our midst.
I used to see her every year at the Fox theater during the Flix season. She looked the same as she did 20 years ago in my Eng 11B class. I never did have the nerve to approach and talk to her or simply say hello. One more thing to add to my regret list. Bummer. She'll definitely be missed.
ER
April 11, 2009
I graduated from WUHS in 1961...wish she had been there when I was....what a stong, bright woman in such a conservative, hard shelled place. I live in the bay area but do think fondly of Wasco.
carol wiebe
March 31, 2009
I never knew what to expect each day when I entered Mrs. McCarthy's classroom, but I always left knowing a little bit more about Boo Radley, myself, or the world. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to know her. I hope that I remembered to tell her, "thank you."
March 30, 2009
She pushed her students to be the very best they could be. Wasco High is a distant memory, but I remember her classes very fondly. She was one of a kind, to say the least. A great talent. Ms. McCarthy will be missed.
Tori Gallagher-Brown
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