Access to Excess

Too much of a good thing is hardly ever enough for the folks who run Kelly Writers House. It’s a rare event there that I haven’t been fidgety at some point, conscious of how uncomfortable—and uncomfortably closely placed—the rickety, mismatched chairs are in the front room where readings and performances are held. But I’ve spent a lot more time there being moved, and amused, and inspired by the insight and creativity of the visitors who have appeared there—2,100 and counting—and by the imagination and enthusiasm of the House regulars.

Literary minded alumni who discover Kelly Writers House have become something of a broken record on the subject. We all say there was nothing like it at Penn when we were here, and what a difference it would have made if there had been. Now that Writers House has been around for a decade, of course, there is a sizable number of alumni who did get to experience it as students—and it has made a difference, for them and Penn. What seemed an unlikely, somewhat quixotic experiment at the University in 1995 has become a signature program—a recruitment tool for new students and the inspiration for similar “hubs” focused on technological innovation and community service.

Associate editor Susan Frith traces the process, and shares some House gossip, in our cover story, “The House that Writers Built.” The article features photos from the 10th anniversary celebration held on May 13 over Alumni Weekend, which was a typically over-the-top affair. People were having too much fun talking to each other, so the speeches were late in starting, and once they did get going, pretty much everybody talked longer than they were supposed to.

But there were some real gems, too, like emeritus English Professor Bob Lucid’s hilarious rendition of how the House was born, delivered with a standup comedian’s—or extraordinarily gifted teacher’s—impeccable timing, or Greg Djanikian C’71 reading his “Sonnet Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Kelly Writers House,” (which is reprinted in Susan’s article), or the truly sweet sense of affection emanating from Writers House faculty director and guiding spirit Al Filreis and the people who had served as senior staff over the years as they stood together, arms linked, while everyone applauded. I wasn’t thinking about the chairs then (and by the time I was, it was time to eat).

We had hoped to be publishing a very different article about the champion racehorse Barbaro, owned by alumni Roy and Gretchen Jackson—one about his triumphant march to the Triple Crown after having won the Kentucky Derby by a wide margin. Barbaro’s stunning injury in the Preakness on May 20, when he came up lame 100 yards into the race, having fractured his right hind leg in three places, shifted the focus and raised the stakes to life-and-death for the Jacksons’ beloved animal. Barbaro’s story also became even more of a Penn one, as the horse was rushed to the vet school’s New Bolton Center for five hours of intensive surgery and what, if all goes well, will be months of recuperation and rehabilitation.

In “Something About Barbaro,” freelancer Kathryn Levy Feldman interviews the Jacksons and surgeon Dean Richardson, and also summarizes the flood of newspaper coverage in the days following the accident. Though he will remain in danger for some time, at this writing, Barbaro—a model patient, apparently—is making excellent progress.

This is also the issue in which we cover Alumni Weekend (our annual photo essay starts on page 50) and Commencement (“Gazetteer,” page 22). This was Penn’s 250th Commencement, and to mark the occasion our friends at the University Archives provided the diploma of James Latta, one of the original graduates, which is reproduced in our back-page “Window.”

—John Prendergast C’80

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