By WALLACE BAINE
If you knew Don Rothman and you needed to find him on any given day, you knew what to do.
You walked up Pacific Avenue toward the Clock Tower to Lulu Carpenter’s coffeehouse. There, towards the back at a particular table near the window looking out on the back patio, you would probably find him, engaged in conversation with a friend, or alone
and focused on his writing.
Rothman died last November and the hole he leaves behind is much more vast than the loss of the Don Rothman Table at Lulu’s. A towering figure in the history of UC Santa Cruz, Rothman had a deep and direct influence on the lives of countless writers around Santa Cruz and beyond.
The first ever full-time writing teacher at UCSC, Rothman devoted his life to three core values: the practice of writing for personal growth, teaching others how to enhance their lives through that same practice, and the belief that writing is an essential element in becoming a better citizen of the world.
Rothman will be a palpable posthumous presence next Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the launch of issue 5 of the Santa Cruz-based on-line literary magazine phren-Z. The live reading, to take place at Bookshop Santa Cruz, will included the featured writers of the new issue – Barbara Bloom, David Sullivan, Peggy Townsend, Lisa Ortiz, Jill Wolfson and Arthur Streshly – as well as the subject of the magazine’s “Floodlight” feature, the poet and translator Stephen Kessler. But the evening will also include a special tribute to Rothman with a reading of Rothman’s essays by his long-time friend Julie Minnis and readings of poems by his acolyte Patrice Vecchione and his widow Diana Rothman.
“He was maybe the most curious person I’ve ever known,” said Vecchione, an acclaimed poet and teacher.
“Don was a master at posing questions to get you to think differently,” said Jory Post of the organization Santa Cruz Writes, and the editor of phren-Z – the new issue officially launches Friday at phren-z.org. “He was a lover of the dialectic process and he was someone who really knew how to listen.”
Rothman joined Oakes College at UCSC 40 years ago and his writing classes there were known for their idealistic and inspiring tone, based on his conviction that writing is the most effective method to improve and hone one’s thinking and a pathway to insight and self-knowledge.
His friend and UCSC colleague, writer and critic Helene Moglen, said that Rothman’s modest personality was a key component of his charisma as a teacher. “What was very noticeable about Don was how quiet he was. He had little interest in imposing his views on his students. What he really wanted to do was to help them hear their own voices and put those voices into writing. His real genius was as a listener.”
One of the great focuses of Rothman’s life was the Central California Writing Project, of which he served as director for 25 years. The CCWP was devoted to helping teachers better understand how to teach writing. Rothman’s summer workshops attracted teachers from across Northern California. His method of helping teachers teach writing was to get them to write themselves.
“Don practiced the virtue of empathy at the highest level,” said New Brighton Middle School teacher Andy Shapiro, a student of Rothman’s. “He recognized that to become a good teacher of writing, you needed to be a good writer. He believed that writing was a mechanism to slow down and deepen the thinking process, and he really helped students discover that for themselves. He believed we were all capable of greatness.”
Rothman’s tribute comes a year after the first issue of phren-Z, in which he contributed a heartwarming essay on Valentine’s Day and his first love letter directed to a grade-school classmate named Barbara:
“I think of how many thousands of pages I have written and how occasionally I feel the pleasure of watching someone read my words and smile, as Barbara smiled two rows to my left in third grade.
“I didn’t wash my cheek for a few days after she kissed me. I carried her presence on my face until, at least in my memory, a kind of erasure, like coastal fog, removed the details, or so I thought. It turns out they’ve been stored for times like this, shortly before Valentine’s Day, a half-century later.”
“Don had a way,” said Julie Minnis, “of taking something you might think of insignificant and going deeper with it, of taking incidental experiences and making them into richer experiences.”
Rothman’s view of writing as a spiritual practice, as a way to self-betterment, meant he was free from the obsession with publication that consumes many writers, said Vecchione.
“He would sit and write for hours, all the time,” she said. “And I was really mystified by that. I was always focused on wanting my work out in the world. If I’m just writing for its own sake, that’s not enough for me. But for Don, in terms of his own writing, that was enough for him.”
“He was much more about process than product,” said Shapiro. “The act of writing was the important thing. He delighted in the benefits of a literate society.”
A memorial service for Rothman in January attracted a capacity crowd at UCSC’s Music Recital Hall. The scheduled speakers were followed by a parade of former students and writers who rose to give tribute.
Helene Moglen was struck by how similar the tributes to Rothman were.
“It’s really magical what he was able to do with students. His gift was in making people feel that he had heard them.”
Though Rothman has likely left behind a lot of unpublished writing, Moglen said that such a body of work would yield few surprises. Rothman, she said, did not view writing as a way to keep secret counsel to oneself.
“I don’t need to read everything Don wrote to know who he was,” she said. “He was so totally present in our friendship. I deeply knew who Don was, in all his Don-ness.”