The day after the first newspaper articles appeared announcing James Michener’s decision to go off kidney dialysis, the students began to call me. Was there anything they could do? Could they bring him a cup of tea? Could they make him a dessert (they all knew that he loved sweets)? One former Michener fellow, now a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, phoned, nearly in tears. She was flying to Austin for the weekend. Was there any way she could see him or speak to him, even for a minute? There wasn’t. He died on a Thursday night, at age ninety, twelve hours before she arrived.
Back in the early eighties, when James Michener came to the state to work on the novel Texas, he was given the red-carpet treatment. He was wined and dined by Governor Clements, flown to private airstrips in Marfa, taken on jeep tours of the biggest ranches. He was also given a ten- by ten-foot office at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a particularly astute move, because one thing you quickly learned about Michener was that he was a lover of universities. Soon thereafter he bought a house in Austin, and every so often a rumor would waft through the halls of the English department that he was considering endowing a creative-writing program.
I had just come to teach at the university myself; so when I was approached by an administrator who wanted to know if Michener could sit in on my graduate fiction workshop, it didn’t seem wise to say no. The students were in awe of him, and he took their work seriously. He was like a Dutch uncle—encouraging, but concerned that no one got too big for his britches. “I’m just your T.A.,” he told me, and he was a remarkable T.A. He attended every class and gave detailed notes on the stories. He passed out lists of the most common grammatical errors—the differences between “lie” and “lay,” between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”
If he could be intimidating, it also quickly became apparent that he was an old-fashioned idealist and an enthusiast and that he had a lot more nerve than the students. One afternoon several young writers were talking about their plans after graduation. One woman said she was thinking about going to Bosnia to work with the rape victims of the war. Michener jumped right on it. “Go,” he said. “Do it now. Drop out of school if you have to.” Her eyes went wide. She stammered something about needing to finish her thesis, but Michener didn’t seem to understand that. There was an opportunity. It needed to be seized. He did not believe in half measures.
IN 1988 IT WAS ANNOUNCED THAT JAMES MICHENER was giving $1 million to create an interdisciplinary master of fine arts ( MFA) degree at the University of Texas. Not only would it train students as screenwriters, poets, playwrights, and fiction writers, but it would ask them to work in more than one genre—“To give them another arrow in their quiver,” Michener said.
I remember how dubious I was. Having fellowships for our students would utterly revive our writing program, but it was hard enough to teach students in one writing discipline—how could we possibly do it in two? Wouldn’t our students be spreading themselves too thin? It sounded grand and Michenerean in its ambition, but it also sounded as if we’d just bitten off a lot more than we could chew.
The program, which we named the Texas Center for Writers, started small in 1989, offering writing fellowships but no master’s degrees to graduate students in the departments of English, theater and dance, and radio-television-film. In the summer of 1990 the university announced another Michener gift of $3 million. Two years later came the big one. Michener donated $15 million to fully fund the program: more students (ten would be admitted each year for three-year graduate programs and five for four-year postgraduate programs), richer fellowships, and most important, an MFA in writing. I was stunned—it was far and away the largest gift ever made to support creative writing anywhere.
In 1993 I became the director of the Texas Center for Writers, succeeding Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. The first class endowed under the new largesse was admitted to the center that fall. Within two years there would be forty students—each supported by a $12,000 annual fellowship. Michener’s gift would make it possible to bring in some of the finest writers in the world to teach and give seminars: J. M. Coetzee, David Hare, W. S. Merwin, and Michael Ondaatje.
I soon discovered that James Michener was not a man who was going to give you $19 million and then forget about it. Each fall he would invite the members of the entering class to his home. He would offer to read their work, give them advice about it, tell them stories. When we held our annual barbecue at the Salt Lick, he would always be there in his bolo tie, his Hobo Times baseball cap, and his tennis shoes with the Velcro straps, sitting at the center table, greeting everyone. He was well into his eighties and not in good health. He was not a meddler, but he was a man used to seeing results and there was not much time.
The students had a genuine admiration for him as well as an understandable gratitude. Yet they were often shy around him. There was something in him that didn’t invite intimacy, and he could be gruff. “Young lady,” he once told an aspiring fiction writer in front of the class, “your teachers had told me that you have talent, but I didn’t see it until this story.”
OUR PROGRAM WAS CERTAINLY NOT the only one to benefit from Michener’s generosity. Over the last decades of his life he gave an estimated $117 million to universities and museums, as well as individuals. He had amassed a fortune, and then set about, in his characteristically methodical way, to be sure that every penny was used.