Sheehan, long-time professor at Dartmouth, dies at 70

by Lindsay Brewer | 5/26/10 10:00pm

Donald Sheehan, a former Dartmouth professor and the first executive director of the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., passed away on May 26 at his home in Charleston, S.C. at the age of 70, according to a statement from his family.

Sheehan spent 15 years of his 35-year teaching career at Dartmouth, where he taught courses in the English and Latin departments as well as in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. He retired from the College in 2004.

English professor Donald Pease, who took a modern poetics course taught by Sheehan at the University of Chicago, described Sheehan as a "remarkable teacher."

"As a student, I was inspired by his way of teaching he was able to engage students in some very detailed and, at times, intellectually challenging understandings of specific poetic texts," Pease, who currently directs the MALS program, said. "He brought that abstract difficulty into passionate and emotional responses to those discipline practices."

In 1978, Sheehan became the first executive director of the Frost Place, a center for poetry and the arts at the former residence of Robert Frost in Franconia, N.H. While at the Frost Place, he developed numerous writing programs and helped to shape the organization's vision, his wife Carol Sheehan said.

"The Frost Place is unimaginable without him he was the guiding hands of the Place for about 30 years," said Sydney Lea, former chair of the board of trustees at the Frost Place.

Donald Sheehan established the Frost Place's resident poet program, which hosts emerging poets for a two-month stay at Frost's homestead to write and give readings in the area, according to Deming Holleran, the current chair of the board of trustees at the Frost Place.

"The Frost Place for him was dedicated to poetry, not personalities or famous figures and, unlike many writing conferences, there was no hierarchy there at all," Lea said. "The visiting poet, no mater how illustrious, was always told that he or she was to be accessible to everyone who attended, so it had a democratic atmosphere that is lacking at a lot of conferences."

In addition to his responsibilities in coordinating the organization's programming, Sheehan produced "legendary" introductions for poets at readings at The Frost Place, according to Carol Sheehan.

"He would give the most beautiful, lyrical introductions to the poets who were giving readings in the evening," Holleran said.

Pease said that Sheehan combined his knowledge of poetry into a spiritual practice after resigning from the University of Chicago, where he began his teaching career.

"He was a strange combination of a very rigorous stylist as a poet and an ecstatic visionary as a spiritual man," Pease said.

Sheehan was ordained as a subdeacon in 1987 after being received into the Orthodox Christian Church in 1984. He prayed for three to four hours daily for 25 years, Carol Sheehan said. Donald Sheehan completed a translation of the Septuagint Greek Psalms in 2003. His wife Carol is currently completing final edits and raising funds to finance the book's publishing by New World Byzantine Studios, Carol Sheehan said.

While Sheehan did not write poetry, he was an "appreciator of poetry," Lea said.

"His poetic ear was pretty obvious in the translation," Lea said.

Pease said Sheehan lived his life following a "humanist path."

"He was a man who lived a life of quasi-poverty in relation to a spiritual journey that was constantly giving him access to visionary excess," Pease said.

Through mutual friends, Donald Sheehan became the sponsor, or spiritual father, of Father Caleb Abetti of the Saint Jacob of Alaska Orthodox Church during the process of Abetti's christening into the Orthodox church. Abetti described his memories of Donald Sheehan in his home with a wood stove, an outhouse and no electricity completing his daily ritual of washing the dishes.

"Watching Don do the dishes was like you could see the whole totality of the integrity of his spirituality," Abetti said.

Abetti said he remembered the way in which Sheehan would find or invent words out of seemingly unintelligible license plates during car rides.

"He was a total wordsmith both in terms of puns and rhymes," he said.

Donald Sheehan is survived by his wife Carol, his sister Nora Wilson, his two sons David Sheehan and Rowan Benedict Sheehan, and his six grandchildren, according to the statement.