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September 2, 2010

Obituary: Bruce Dobler

obituary Bruce DoblerFormer English faculty member Bruce Dobler, a mentor to many aspiring writers in Pitt’s creative nonfiction writing program, has died. He was 71.

Dobler’s body was found by his wife in the garage of his El Paso home on Aug. 15, 2010. The cause and date of death remain undetermined pending the release of an autopsy report by the El Paso medical examiner’s office, which is awaiting toxicology report results.

Dobler joined the Pitt faculty in 1979 and retired from the University in 2008. As a senior Fulbright lecturer in 1992-93, he taught writing and literature courses at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

In 2003, Dobler won a College of General Studies Students Choice Award for Teaching Excellence, an honor he treasured. The award remained in a prominent place on his dresser, his daughter Lisa Mullen said.

Dobler held a bachelor’s degree in English from Roosevelt University and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa’s prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After earning his MFA, he became writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy, then taught at Windham College, the University of Arizona and the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP).

During the 1970s he published three books: “I Made it Myself,” the biography of a New York printer-turned-counterfeiter; “Icepick,” a documentary novel set in a maximum security prison, and “The Last Rush North,” a documentary novel about the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

At the time of his death, Dobler was completing a creative nonfiction textbook for publisher Palgrave Macmillan, Mullen said. He also had written several drafts of “Vacant Lots,” a memoir based on his childhood in Chicago, an idea Mullen said he had been pursuing since the 1970s.

While in Pittsburgh he was a contributing editor for several publications, including Pittsburgh Magazine. He also wrote for local newspapers.

His writing led to his marriage in 2008 to Julieta Barrera of El Paso, who had been his student at UTEP. The two reconnected after she spotted his byline on a newspaper restaurant review while visiting Pittsburgh.

Mullen said she and her father shared a curious nature, recalling how they easily could be distracted when something interesting caught their attention. They weren’t shy about investigating, at times even following ambulances in their car to satisfy their curiosity. Dobler likewise wasn’t shy about approaching people in conversation, Mullen said, adding that he took a genuine interest in listening to other people and their stories. “The conversations weren’t one-sided.”

Dobler was fond of bears and had a collection that included a stuffed real bear cub he found in an antique store. “Bernie,” who accompanied Dobler through moves to several new homes, now stands guard over Dobler’s ashes in El Paso, Mullen said.

Former colleagues and students remember Dobler as easygoing, eccentric, passionate and above all, protective of his students.

He loved jazz music and swing dancing and had a passion for Germany and all things German, having taught and visited there on multiple occasions.

Early in his Pitt career, Dobler could be found in front of the classroom on roller skates, often without socks. “That may have amused some colleagues, but not the Shakespeareans,” quipped former writing program colleague Lee Gutkind, who recalled Dobler as a friendly and humorous presence in the English department.

“Of all the people who dealt with students in creative nonfiction, he was the most positive. He always assured students. He always encouraged students,” Gutkind said. “He liked students so much and was so happy they were in the program he had a reluctance or difficulty leveling criticism.”

Dobler’s support for his students’ writing was deeply appreciated by young, unsure writers in whose work he always found something worth pursuing, said former student Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose life intersected with Dobler’s first as an MFA student and later as a fellow Pitt English department faculty member.

“If he liked your work, he really liked it. If he didn’t, he was just very quiet,” she said, adding that while perceptive students might have read between the lines of his silence, Dobler “would never be cruel to a student about their writing.”

As a teacher, Laskas has kept Dobler’s gentle approach in mind. “In front of the classroom I definitely would think of his care and his respect for student writing,” she said. “That was my model for being careful and respectful.”

Along with his love for being part of a writing community, Dobler loved teaching. “He felt quite honored being a professor. He took it seriously,” Laskas said. She noted that Dobler launched a reading series at Hemingway’s Café, providing students with a venue in which to present their writing. “It was so exciting to have a place to go,” she recalled.

Former student Kathleen Tarr also remembered Dobler as a stalwart champion of his students’ work. “He was a complex character. He stood by his students. That much is indisputable,” she said, adding that he had a gift for helping young writers develop their inner voice and talent.

Along with teaching the fundamentals and mechanics of writing, Dobler urged his students to be great listeners and to pay attention to the poetry of language. “He was almost more of a poet than a straight nonfiction writer,” Tarr said, adding that he encouraged his creative nonfiction students to read across genres and embrace poetry and fiction while also introducing them to literary greats in contemporary nonfiction.

Dobler’s retirement in 2008 followed a period of ups and downs over the course of a long-term fight with cancer. “The last five years, things were difficult,” Gutkind recalled, adding that Dobler’s health at times kept him from the classroom and prevented him from teaching with as much energy as he would have liked.

Dobler continued to nurture other writers after his retirement as a participant in Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction mentoring program.

“The literary community lost a passionate and devoted comrade,” said Tarr, who studied with Dobler, Gutkind and Laskas as an MFA student at Pitt, 2002-05. Tarr, program coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA in creative writing program, maintained contact with Dobler. The two regularly exchanged information about their writing.

“I’m still reeling from the loss,” she said, admitting that although Dobler had longstanding health problems, his sudden death was unexpected. “It’s like having one of your limbs amputated, losing one of your mentors.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dobler is survived by daughter Stephanie Cerra and grandsons Griffin and Cade Mullen. He was predeceased in 2004 by his former wife and mother of his daughters, poet Patricia Dobler.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 1

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