Academics and Research / News

Zaranka retires at a ‘splendid time in DU history’

During William Zaranka's time at DU, he served as a professor, program chair, dean and provost. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

William Zaranka’s career at the University of Denver spanned six decades.

The young man who first came to Colorado and DU as a creative writing student in 1969 has since served as professor, program chair, dean and provost.

In 2003, he returned to his faculty position in DU’s English department and retired from the University at the end of spring quarter.

“I do regret leaving at such a splendid time in the University’s history,” Zaranka says. “It’s never been in such great shape. I can say that with some authority, having been a student here, having worked in the very high powered creative writing program, having seen the University through its toughest and most difficult times regarding morale and governance issues, and having been through four different accreditation processes.”

A poet born in Elizabeth, N.J., Zaranka came to DU because it was one of only two schools in the country that offered a PhD in creative writing and literature. After earning his degree in 1974, he took his first position as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to DU in 1978 to chair the creative writing program.

He published two volumes of original poetry, Blessing (Wayland Press, 1986) and A Mirror Driven Through Nature (Sparrow Press, 1981). His niche — a combination of parody and poetry — led to his most well-known work, a parody of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, called The Brand-X Anthology of Poetry, (Applewood Books, 1981) which spanned the beginning of English literature to about the 1980s. He also published The Brand-X Anthology of Fiction (Applewood Books, 1983).

“I’ve always loved writing poetry and always had a fondness for listening very hard to other poets who have exerted strong influences on my own work,” he says. “It made it a lot of fun to try to imitate the poets that I loved so much and imitate them in a deflatingly humorous way. It’s satirical, but it also pays profound homage to great poets.”

In 1984, Zaranka became dean of DU’s arts & humanities division, which soon grew to include social sciences. In 1989, he accepted the position of provost and served until 2001.

Zaranka says he doesn’t really know how he became an administrator. It certainly was not part of his plan. As a writer, all he wanted was isolation and huge blocks of free time — the exact opposite of being an administrator.

“The University was having a tough time during the 1980s and asked me to serve as dean,” he recalls. “I thought it would be for two or three years — 20 some years later I finally came back to English. It still does puzzle me that somehow that happened.”

Gareth Eaton, John Evans Professor in DU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and former dean and vice-provost for research, says he suggested Zaranka as dean in the mid-1980s based on his credibility among the faculty, commitment to DU and personality to deal with a variety of people.

“His subsequent success includes being the right person to serve as provost to buffer between Dan Ritchie and the faculty during times that many faculty were less than enchanted with the move from an academic to a corporate administrative style,” Eaton says.

Ritchie, who served as chancellor while Zaranka was provost, says Zaranka was extraordinarily committed and always put the University before himself.

“Bill understood as well as anybody could that the future of the University was all about quality,” Ritchie says. “It was about delivering in our academic programs and all of our programs the highest possible quality, and if we did that and did it consistently we would be enormously successful.”

Ritchie found that Zaranka was also a fascinating person to work with because of his wide variety of outside interests, including astronomy.

“He gave me a real education, giving me books and discussion about astronomy and the universe,” Ritchie says. “He really was very professional about it with an amazing knowledge and passion and I found it really quite wonderful.”

Zaranka punned that he was the poet “lariat” to the chancellorship of Dan Ritchie, Man of the West.

“They made a unique duo in academe, and it was quite a ride working with Bill in those transitional years of the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Eric Gould, DU’s vice provost for internationalization. “Bill was not only an excellent administrator who helped define the provost position at DU, but he was compassionate, thoughtful, and had a wonderful talent for seeing both the irony and even humor in the toughest moments. He’ll be missed at DU for his wisdom, writing and teaching talents, and ability to stay really human at all times.”

Clark Davis, professor and chair of DU’s Department of English, didn’t get to know Zaranka until he returned to English several years ago and found it remarkable how tirelessly a former senior-level administrator would throw himself into departmental work. Davis says he will need four faculty members to fill the roles Zaranka leaves behind.

“Of course he has been a tremendously popular teacher during this time as well,” Davis says. “His course in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form was consistently a revelation to students, and the young creative writing students who took his intermediate courses simply loved him. To me, personally, Bill has always been an inspiration. He seems never to get down or discouraged. And he has a genuine gift with people. It struck me one day after I’d seen Bill in the hall that he had the ability to make you feel as though he was happier to see you that day than anyone else — a rare skill, particularly in academia.”

English department colleague Professor Emerita Margaret Whitt says Zaranka always exercised a calm demeanor and balanced rhetoric.

“Bill brought to the bully pulpit a confidence in his own remarkable ability to use words wisely, cleverly and compassionately,” Whitt says. “He never forgot the discipline from which he came: he understood so well how words can damage or heal. He was always fair-minded, thoughtful, and kind — a daily example of the ideal administrator.”

As he returns to the discipline from which he came, getting back to unfinished poems and anthologies that need updating, Zaranka also plans to immerse himself in his myriad avocations, including astronomy, composing, geology, machining and welding, computerized gadgetry and experimentation.

Even with so much to keep him busy, it’s going to be difficult leaving DU.

“It feels like a part of me,” he says. “My sons went to DU. I’ve been very fortunate to see it go from where it was when I first came to the glorious thing it is now, a beautiful campus and wonderful faculty, tremendous administration, great physical plant and highly selective, excellent students. I taught a couple of undergrad courses last quarter. The students were so tenacious about learning, and their writing was outstanding. It’s been heartening to see all the wonderful growth and changes that have taken place. It’s just been remarkable. It’s going to be hard to leave the people and the place.”

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