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Thursday, Mar. 26, 2009

Ennis Rees: USC professor, state poet dies

Author ‘was exemplary teacher,’ ‘so engaging and supportive and helpful’

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Ennis Rees loved the cadence of words well put together, whether the ancient Greek of the “Odyssey” or the Gullah-influenced Brer Rabbit stories.

Rees, a former S.C. poet laureate who died Monday at age 84, passed on that affection to generations of students at the University of South Carolina.

“He was an exemplary teacher,” said Charles Israel, who took graduate-level courses under Rees and now teaches English at Columbia College. “I was an older student and had been a teacher, and I was amazed how the younger graduate students grew enthusiastic by his example.”

Rees taught at USC from 1954 through 1988 and was appointed as the state’s poet laureate in 1984. At the time, he was only the third poet laureate in state history, following Archibald Rutledge (1934-73) and Helen von Kolnitz Hyer (1974-83). Rees served in the post through 1985. (Gov. Dick Riley tried to spread the appreciation for verse by appointing three poet laureates during his eight years in office.)

Rees’ body of work ranged from poetry to literary criticisms to translations of Homer and Aesop. He also wrote children’s books, often illustrated by Edward Gorey, with fanciful names such as “Gillygaloos and Gollywhoppers,” “Teeny Tiny Duck and the Pretty Money” and “Windwagon Smith.”

“He was fascinated by the undergirding of children’s stories, the playfulness of the language,” Israel said.

Alexandra Rowe, who directs the English program for international students at USC, remembered Rees for his kindness to students and fellow instructors. She overloaded her schedule during her first summer of graduate school and was fortunate Rees taught one of those courses.

“He was so engaging and supportive and helpful,” Rowe said.

Later, when Rowe was teaching freshman English, she wanted to visit her fiance in the Netherlands over Christmas break, but she couldn’t get back until after the first week of classes. She thought she was going to have to cancel the trip until Rees heard about her quandary and offered to substitute for her.

Rees was born March 17, 1925 in Newport News, Va. He earned an undergraduate degree from William and Mary and master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard. He taught at Duke and Princeton before coming to USC.

Rees is survived by his wife, Marion Lott Rees, children, Amy Rees McKee and Jeffrey Stuart Rees, and grandchildren, Megan Mckee and Caitlin McKee. He was predeceased by a son, Andrew Rees.

A memorial service will be held Monday at 3 p.m. at Rutledge Chapel at the University of South Carolina.

Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.

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