Saint Leo Announces the Passing of Professor Kurt Van Wilt

May 27, 2016

Saint Leo University regrets to announce the passing of Dr. Kurt Van Wilt, professor of Dr -Kurt -Wilt2 English at University Campus, poet, and the creator of the lyrics of the Saint Leo Alma Mater.

Dr. Wilt died Friday, May 20, at the age of 67, at his home. He had been forced to relinquish classroom teaching duties in the spring of 2015 after the discovery of brain cancer. Dr. Wilt first joined Saint Leo in 1981, and his loss is shared by those who knew him as a teacher, mentor, author, scholar, and community member, as well as by his family, which includes his wife, Denise, and their daughter, Yasmine.

 “Kurt was involved in so many activities, but usually quietly; people are not always aware of how much he accomplished,” said Dean Mary Spoto, who leads the School of Arts & Sciences at Saint Leo, and who was a longtime colleague of Dr. Wilt. “He enriched many, many lives.”

Community outreach was important to him. Dr. Wilt was a longtime volunteer tutor with migrant farm children in the area, for instance. He visited schools in Pasco and other neighboring counties to present guest lectures, to judge playwriting (another of his areas of study) and other writing contests, to tutor students preparing for college placement exams, and to share boxes of the annual Saint Leo literary arts magazine.

The university relied upon his skills and talents at several critical junctures. Notably, he was asked in 1999 to write the words for a new Saint Leo Alma Mater (the music was composed by Jeffrey R. Smith). To support Saint Leo’s entry into the new world of digital education, in 2000 Dr. Wilt created the first English course for online learners.   

In his classes, Dr. Wilt insisted that his younger undergraduate students develop and express their own creativity and show originality—while adhering to the standards of good English— rather than trying to produce what they mistakenly thought might be an expected essay topic or personal reflection. With more advanced and older students, he was more apt to adopt the role of peer or friend.

He also wanted to help the writers he taught and encountered to find ways to keep up their creative efforts and to learn to share with one another. So Dr. Wilt worked with colleagues and friends to nurture the development of a creative community. In addition to co-founding of the university’s Sandhill Review literary arts magazine and The Green Rabbit Press chapbook series, he helped launch The Lightning Key Review electronic journal. In tandem with these efforts, he helped organize joint readings and gatherings and open mic nights.

As for his own creative and scholarly endeavors, Dr. Wilt’s daughter, Yasmine, noted that he was “a master of the sonnet.”  Yasmine, also a writer, edited for Millichap Books, Innocence and Awakening, a two-volume collection of her father’s poetry that has just gone to press. In 2015, Millichap released a smaller volume of his poetry, Vast Self.

Dr. Wilt was also an expert in comparative mysticism and Native American literature. Among his titles on this topic is the 2011 book on a contemporary Native American mystic, The Visionary: Entering the Mystic Universe of Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow). And over his career, Dr. Wilt created chapbooks of poetry, and had individual poems, plays, and stories accepted and published by a variety of literary journals and outlets.

Dr. Wilt earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Queens College, the City University of New York, where he grew up. He worked for a couple of years before serving in the U.S. Navy for two years during the mid-1970s. Then he went to Montreal to earn a master’s degree in English and writing from Concordia University. Years later, he returned to university to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from Norwich University in Vermont. He began teaching at Saint Leo after that. He went on to earn his doctorate in creative writing from Lancaster University in England on a low-residency basis, meaning he attended classes at Lancaster during the summers and completed his required academic work at home while also teaching.