Beyond the Pew with Walt McDonald

by Tracey Horne

There is one who walks unassumingly among us at Broadway. He moves along slowly, stooped from injuries received in military service, and gently greets those in his path with a kind smile. To many in our church family, he needs no introduction. However, many more of us may not be familiar with this man. This Air Force veteran. This beloved teacher. This (former) poet. This loving husband, father, grandfather and great- grandfather of two. Walt McDonald. Let me try to introduce him (although writing about a gifted writer is terribly intimidating!).
 
Walt and Carol McDonaldWalt is a Lubbock native who graduated from Lubbock High School and went on to get B.A. and M.A. degrees from Texas Tech University. While attending Tech, Walt was part of the Bible Chair (currently known as Christ In Action). He was among the students who were encouraged by Bible Chair Director Mont Whitson to give devotional talks now and then, and he discovered that he really liked doing that. Soon he was asked by the Broadway elders to teach the high school Bible class for two years on Sunday mornings. Though he enjoyed teaching, all Walt really wanted to do for a career was fly. After completing his M.A, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Air Force and received the pilot training on which he had set his sights years before. With such a strong academic background, he soon was added to the Air Force Academy faculty teaching English. He loved those years in Colorado Springs, flying jets and teaching bright young cadets. Another love flourished during that period as well. Walt married Carol Ham, a beautiful young artist and the wind beneath his wings, in August of 1959. They shared 59 years together before her passing in July of this year.
 
The Air Force provided Walt the opportunity to further his education and he obtained his Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa in 1966. Walt then returned to teaching at the Academy, served in Vietnam, and continued on as part of the Academy’s faculty until he retired from the Air Force. At the time of his retirement from the Air Force, Walt and Carol made the decision to return to Lubbock. Texas Tech had a teaching position for Walt, and some certain grandparents were thrilled to have Walt’s and Carol’s three children nearby to spoil. And, another compelling chapter in Walt’s life was about to unfold.
 
“I came to poetry late, as a middle-aged Air Force pilot,” Walt explains. “After some of my friends went off to Vietnam, and one was shot down, then another, I felt a need to say something to them, or about them. I had been writing fiction for years, and I turned to poems when nothing else worked.” Walt learned to enjoy writing poems as “work,” just as his older brother enjoyed working with his hands as a maker of furniture. “Dictionaries call poets ‘makers,’ people who make up little things we call ‘poems,’” Walt explained. During the course of his work, Walt published over 2,300 poems, many in the nation’s most prestigious journals including The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books (U.K.), Poetry, and JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). He also published 23 books of poems with Harper & Row in New York (now called “Harper Collins”), and several university presses including The Ohio State University Press, Notre Dame University Press, The University of Massachusetts Press, Pittsburgh University Press, Texas Christian University Press, Texas Tech University Press, and Abilene Christian University Press.
 
Many may think poems are the result of a great inspiration and desire to express the depths of the author’s heart. Walt wrote often about flying, Vietnam, the Rocky Mountains, his family, and his native West Texas. However, his poems were born simply out of adventure and fun. He described sitting down to write as going into the wild with a net and lasso just to see what he could capture: finding something wild and trying to tame it without breaking its spirit. When sitting down to write, he often would start out with just one simple word and see what journey it would take him on. In a 1999 interview with Dr. Darryl Tippens from Abilene Christian University, Walt explained, “I write for the pleasure of playing with words and finding stories in poems. I write to discover, to follow an image and see what story I can spin from it, what tale develops.” I also learned from visiting with Walt that poets lie. “A poem is a made-up thing,” he was careful to stress. He tells of a time when he delivered a reading of one of his poems entitled “Teaching My Wife To Fly” and a member of the audience came up to him afterward, fascinated and wanting to know more. She was most disappointed to learn that Walt had never attempted to teach Carol to fly!
 
The honors and awards Walt has received as a poet are too numerous to list in this space (his curriculum vitae listing awards and grants is two pages long). However, a few deserve special mention. He was appointed as Texas Poet Laureate for 2001 and received a lifetime appointment as Poet Laureate of Lubbock in 1999.
 
Dr. McDonald also had an illustrious and gratifying career teaching creative writing at Texas Tech University, where he taught from 1971 to 2002. The honors and awards continued there as well. He received Tech’s Distinguished Alumnus Award (1988), the Texas Professor of the Year Award (1992), and, in 1987, the Board of Regents appointed him as a Paul Whitfield Horn Professor, which is Texas Tech’s highest academic honor.
 
When asked about his poetry in relation to his faith, Walt replied, “Everything I ever wrote came from the confession of faith I make daily.” He earlier expressed in the interview with Darryl Tippens, “The foundation of all my work is Christ; not one poem would have come without that rock.” Walt finds much beauty in the poetry of the Bible: the Psalms of course, but also Genesis, Revelation, the beginning of the gospel of John.
 
A favorite comes from Hebrews 12:18-24:
“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
 
In 2006, Walt made a clean break from writing poems to give more time to Carol, to friends and family, and to spend more energy writing talks for Bible classes. He no longer considers himself a poet because he is no longer “one who writes poems.” Thirteen years have passed since Walt last ventured into the wild in search of the right word to snare. However, his poems are alive and well, a treasure trove for us and for generations to come. We are grateful, Dr. McDonald, to share in your life’s work.
 
(Walt recently taught the Sunday morning Anchors Bible class for seven weeks. You can find audio of his lessons at this link.)

One Response to “Beyond the Pew with Walt McDonald”

  1. Marcelia Sawyers says:

    The writer and the subject; both living out a life reflecting our Creator with the unique abilities given each. A wonderful glimpse into our Broadway Brother’s life. Thanks, Tracey!

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