Wayne Lesser died on Monday, July 17, at his home in Lytton Springs. At the time of his death, Wayne was engaged in one of the activities he loved, teaching his summer school class in American literature at The University of Texas at Austin, where, in a career that spanned 42 years, he served as a Professor of English.
Wayne focused his scholarship and teaching on 19th and ear
ly 20th century American literature and on literary theory. A dedicated teacher with a profound sense of professional responsibility, Wayne fashioned and taught the first freshman Liberal Arts Honors class. A student writes that, “It wasn’t until my senior year at UT that I finally found my niche, when I took an upper-division English class with Wayne Lesser and was astounded to learn that there is much more to Herman Melville and Mark Twain than Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At last, a professor who clearly loved the material…I wanted to take the class over and over….”
Wayne served for many years as Graduate Adviser in the English Department’s graduate program. He found money to support graduate students and spent hours helping students formulate a thesis topic. Those applying to graduate school or for jobs found his guidance invaluable. Wayne also served as Associate Chair of the Department.
One of his great passions was baseball. When one of his colleagues recently mentioned that his son was enjoying Little League, Wayne responded, “That’s great! [a typical Wayne affirmation, an ordinary phrase, but infused with his infectious enthusiasm and warmth] We need more baseball players!” One of his colleagues writes, “Wayne’s love of baseball went hand in hand with that commitment to scholarship, and also to something larger: that he inspired all whom he met to enter into life with a spirit of play, the joy of sport.”
Wayne Lesser was born on Jan. 21, 1949, in Philadelphia, Pa., the son of Marilyn Steinfield Lesser and Marshall Jacob Lesser. Wayne talked often and had great memories of camping and extended canoeing trips thanks to eight summers at Keewaydin Camp in Vermont. At West Hempstead High School, West Hempstead, N.Y., he played tennis, became an Eagle Scout, and won a Ford Foundation Scholarship enabling him to attend the University of Pennsylvania. Wayne graduated in 1970 with a B.A. degree in English. He went on to take an M.A. (1970-1972) and a Ph.D. (1972-1975) in English from the University of Chicago and joined the faculty at U.T. Austin in 1975. Wayne was a visiting professor at the University of Würzburg (1978), the University of Stuttgart (1987), the University of Muenster (1989), and the University of Paris at Nanterre (1994).
At the Green Pastures in Austin on July 7, 1990, Wayne married Lou Ellen MacNaughton. Wayne and Lou and their daughters, Lauren and Channing Jones, traveled and lived in France, Indonesia, Turkey and many other countries. They all shared a love of nature and settled on a ranch in Lytton Springs with horses, donkeys and many foundling pets.
A great enthusiast and explicator of theories and methodologies of all kinds, from baseball line-ups to political economies to the reading and teaching of literature, Wayne took sheer delight in the life and play of the mind and relished sharing that delight with others. Wayne was planning to teach an honors course this fall semester that he had already constructed—quite beautifully—and that he called, “Don DeLillo in Conversation with Contemporary Women Writers.” Professor Evan Carton has agreed to the teach the class, an altogether fitting tribute to his friend and life-long colleague. Wayne’s work goes on.
The grief we feel for the death of Wayne Lesser, our friend, colleague, confidant, and moral compass will last all the days of our lives, but so will the joy that he provided, memories of his sparkling intellect, good will, his love of family and friends, and his sense of humor.
A memorial service will be held for Wayne on Friday, Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. at Temple Beth Shalom, 7300 Hart Ln., Austin, Texas, 78731. In place of sending flowers, please consider making a donation to the Keewaydin Foundation, at 950 West Shore Rd, Salisbury, VT 05769. Please indicate “memorial for Wayne Lesser” in your correspondence (keewaydin.org/keewaydin-foundation).