Our Beloved Friend, Bill Curtin

In March of this past year, longtime professor and co-founder of the Connecticut Writing Project, Bill Curtin, passed away at the age of 94. While reflecting on Bill’s life, we must acknowledge how his time at the University of Connecticut affected the lives of so many young writers. Of course, Bill Curtin didn’t start the Connecticut Writing Project completely on his own; he had the help of Bill Rosen and Bill Sheidley, two other professors working in the English department at the time. 

Rosen had been reading an article regarding the decrease in writing at Harvard University, and realized the same problem was present here at Uconn. Now, it’s important to note that the University of Connecticut is rated as one of the top public universities in the country today, but forty years ago we had barely made a name for ourselves. The decision to start the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut was a choice that arguably put us on the map. 

The next step in this process was to involve Jim Gray. Gray was the founder of the National Writing Project and responsible for putting together the first Summer Institute at the University of California, Berkeley in 1974. Gray’s help was vital to the success of the CWP, and he actually assisted Curtin, Sheidley, and Rosen in the first Summer Institute here at UConn in 1982. 

The goal of the Summer Institute was for teachers to improve their writing skills by “demonstrating approaches to the teaching of writing, exploring problems and investigating research in the field, applying current theory to writing instruction, and responding to and evaluating the work of other teachers.” The CWP has involved many successful writers, such as one you might recognize—Wally Lamb. The author of She’s Come Undone was a high school English teacher at the time, and served on the selection committee for Connecticut Student Writers in 1988. Also on the selection committee was Mary Mackley, who took over as director of the Connecticut Writing Project in the mid 1980s, following Bill Curtin and Ann Policelli Cronin.

Jason Courtmanche, who is the current director of the CWP, says that Bill remained involved and cared about the success of the organization long after he retired. He and his wife Mary donated funds to the CWP’s Foundation account every year. When Courtmanche took over as Director of the Connecticut Writing Project in 2007, the program had been “extremely ghettoized.” Courtmanche wasn’t even allowed to attend faculty meetings. Consistent with Bill’s original vision for the project, Courtmanche took it upon himself to reintegrate the program and turn it into what it is today. 

Courtmanche shared something interesting which I’m sure a lot of professors can relate to. He said there is “a lot of blaming that goes on in academics.” When a college student’s level of writing is not up to par, college professors say it’s the high school teachers that need to be held responsible. High school teachers blame the middle school teachers and the middle school teachers blame the elementary school teachers. 

What Courtmanche says Bill taught him is that, instead, professors and other teachers should be thanking the teachers who taught their students before them. The point of starting the Summer Institute was to curb this problem by working with teachers from across the grade levels and disciplines in order to help them improve their own writing skills, therefore being the best they can be for their students. 

We have to thank Professors Curtin, Rosen, and Sheidley for their proactive thinking. These men were not in the business of throwing blame; they preferred to appreciate their fellow educators.  I also spoke with Albert (Hap) Fairbanks, a longtime professor here at UConn and close friend of Bill Curtin’s, who only retired last year after almost fifty years at UConn. Fairbanks was able to provide more of an insight into Bill Curtin’s personal life and values. 

Something that was important to Bill was immersing himself in various cultures and academic ideas. Prior to coming to work at the University of Connecticut, Bill had received a Fulbright scholarship to teach at the University of Dijon, France in 1968, and then received another scholarship to teach at the University of Upsala, Sweden in 1977. Bill and his wife Mary learned to cook lots of interesting cuisines from living abroad and would often cook for Hap and his wife, Ruth. Fairbanks recalls Bill cooking obscure dishes such as one that included rabbit, and he even saw Bill fillet an entire fish himself once.  

Bill was a man who was very intellectually driven. It seems as though all of Bill’s extracurriculars were activities that would help him enrich his mind and his life. He was also very involved in his parish and read writings of intellectuals in the Roman Catholic church– Bill even brought in religious speakers to give talks here at the university. Bill’s appreciation of religion and faith were present in most everything he did, and he continued to keep this faith and appreciation for academic ideas long after he retired. 

When asked what he would like to thank Bill for, Fairbanks says, “I would thank him for teaching me how to age.” Bill’s ability to maintain his vitality for his intellectual interests into old age just proves how much of a gift he was to the community of academia. We won’t forget Bill Curtin’s contributions to the University of Connecticut, and we will miss him very much.


A special thanks to Hap Fairbanks and Jason Courtmanche for their contributions to this story. 


By Julia Marcella