Gerald Early given star on St. Louis Walk of Fame
Gerald Early, an endowed professor of English literature at Washington University, spoke of his shortcomings in little league baseball and his conservative upbringing during a ceremony Thursday morning at which he was recognized as one of the greatest St. Louisans with a commemorative star and plaque on the Delmar Loop.
He joined the likes of around 120 other great St. Louisans, including Chuck Berry and Tennessee Williams, honored with stars on the Loop as a part of the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Early’s star will be placed on the sidewalk in front of the University’s new apartment buildings, currently under construction at 6263 Delmar Blvd.
“He’s being celebrated today not only because he’s a great member of our academic community but because he’s changed the lives of many, many people through his work. He’s been a great author, he’s been a great collaborator with Ken Burns and we are fortunate to have him in our midst,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said of Early in his introductory remarks.
Founded in 1988 by community activist and Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards, the Walk of Fame accepts open nominations throughout the year, which are then voted on by a group of 120 distinguished St. Louisans, including the University’s chancellor and all living Walk of Fame inductees.
Edwards expressed admiration for the impact that Early and other members of the University have had on the community and nation.
“It’s nothing short of phenomenal how many people in the St. Louis Walk of Fame have some connection to Washington University,” he said. “Either they attended, they taught or have done research there, or something.”
He said Early earned a star not only for his accomplishments but also for his character.
“He’s an exceptionally kind and bright and nice person and a beacon to a lot of people,” Edwards said.
Early accepted the award with characteristic humility and humor.
“It’s difficult to give an appropriate response to receiving an honor like this,” Early said. “To say that you don’t deserve it assails the judgment of the people who chose you for it. To say that you deserve it is an admission that you don’t know how to judge yourself objectively.”
“It is clear that many can make a claim to a small piece of this plaque,” he added. “No one does anything solely through his or her own efforts. No one is his or her own invention. We are rather cobbled together piecemeal by a network of unexpected influences.”
Early spoke affectionately of the conservative, low-income south Philadelphia neighborhood where he was raised.
“This working class conservatism had severe shortcomings as it was built on intolerance, superstition, political corruption and prideful ignorance,” he said. “But there was much about this community’s conservatism that made my childhood stable and warm and rich in the gifts of ordinary life, even if it was narrow in its exposure and unenlightened about the wider world. I am what this neighborhood made me.”
Describing a baseball game from his youth, Early joked of his lack of skill and desire to give up trying. He recalled that his teammates encouraged him to carry on, and he clinched a win by tagging an opposing runner for the final out.
“I learned everything from that game,” he said.
Senior Drew Heiring expressed his appreciation for Early as a professor.
“He’s a tremendously talented man, and he’s a really friendly lecturer,” he said. “It’s like he’s engaging in a conversation with you while he’s lecturing, which is very pleasant.”
Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor in English and long-time friend and colleague of Early, acknowledged Early’s significance as a writer not only within St. Louis but also on a national and international scale.
“He’s on the Walk of Fame not just because he’s a great person living in St. Louis and all the rest of it but because he is one of the best writers we have. By ‘we,’ I’m talking internationally,” Fields said. “He is an astute social critic. He writes beautifully. He does the most painstaking and thoughtful analysis of an issue and then the construction of the arguments that he’s presenting in relationship to that issue.”
Vice Chancellor for Students Sharon Stahl also acknowledged Early’s widespread fame and influence.
“I think he’s a rock star in St. Louis, but it’s not just St. Louis. Gerald [Early] is a national figure, and he actually is an international literary figure,” Stahl said. “He’s a treasure for us because not only is he a scholar, a writer, but he’s a popular cultural figure through his work with Ken Burns.”
“He reflects so well on Washington University,” she added. “We owe him a great debt.”