Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 5, 2009

Obituary: Montgomery Culver

Former English faculty member Montgomery (Monty) Culver died Feb. 23, 2009. He was 80.

Culver earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Pitt and a PhD from the University of Illinois. A fiction writer, he joined Pitt’s English department in 1953 and attained the rank of professor in 1971.

He was a former editor of the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law and had served as president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Culver’s early work appeared in several prestigious publications. His story “Black Water Blues,” published in Atlantic Monthly in 1951, won an O. Henry Short Story Award.

Other stories included “Lousy Luck,” which appeared in Esquire in 1962, and “Chance of a Lifetime,” which was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1966.

Most notably, Culver was a central figure in the English department’s creative writing program for many years and served as its director for more than a decade. His former students include writers Jonellen Heckler, Peter Beagle and Lee Gutkind, and publisher Joni Evans of Random House and Simon and Schuster.

Pitt Poetry Series editor Ed Ochester, who became director of the writing program in 1978, said Culver led the program during a time when it expanded from one focused mainly on composition to encompass more courses in fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Gutkind, a Pitt English professor emeritus, credited Culver with being instrumental in the growth of Pitt’s creative writing program as well as in motivating others to begin similar programs. “He planted the seeds,” Gutkind said. “Monty did it when nobody paid attention to writers in the academic world.”

Gutkind said Culver sacrificed his own work to dedicate himself to his students. “He was so involved in life, in his teaching, his students and in reading, he kind of put his writing in the background,” Gutkind said. “Typically, writing teachers teach writing in order to get time to write. Monty did it backwards.”

Ochester recalled Culver as being extraordinarily modest. “If Monty would want to be remembered for one thing, it would be his service to other people. He never advertised the fact that he was a wonderful teacher; he simply did his work as he saw fit.”

Culver wasn’t known as a charismatic classroom figure, Gutkind said, citing Culver’s soft-spoken nature and tendency to mumble. “Because he was so shy, he wasn’t the greatest lecturer in the world. Students went to him for the gold he wrote on your manuscripts,” Gutkind said, remembering him more as an insightful evaluator rather than merely an editor of students’ written work.

“He was so smart — he knew how to take a pencil to a manuscript and help you on a one-on-one basis in that way,” Gutkind said.

Culver made himself available to his students, Ochester said, noting that during the time their offices were side-by-side in the English department, he often could hear Culver discussing with students the elements of a story he thought were great as well as those he felt could be improved.

“Every time I came into the office, Monty was there. … He clearly did more than he was asked by the department and clearly more than would seem reasonable.”

That devotion didn’t go unnoticed, Ochester said. In conversations with writing program alumni over many years, “The one person they always mentioned with extraordinary fondness was Monty Culver.”

Culver’s availability extended to his former students as well, Gutkind said, recalling how Culver mentored him after he had completed his undergraduate degree.

“He had taken a number of former students under his wing,” Gutkind said, teaching them after hours in a room in the Cathedral of Learning. “He guided us for years for no reward except for our friendship, our loyalty and our love. He worked with us for hours.”

Culver conducted the seminars “just for the love of it,” Ochester agreed, adding, “I’ve never known anyone else who just did this because he was so called to it. It always knocked me out to see that kind of dedication, and Monty had it.”

Culver is survived by his partner, Madelyn Mankoff; his daughter, Carol Culver; his son, Ralph Culver, and nieces and nephews.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply