By Scott Sullivan
The name of Douglas’ first poet laureate should be no surprise: It’s Jack Ridl.
City council Monday cited the retired Hope College English professor and multi-decorated scrivener, to the unpaid post for likely a lifelong term.
He was nominated for the position at the Aug. 5 council meeting by Respite Cappuccino Court owner former mayor Rene Waddell, Members voted unanimously to make the matter a resolution Monday.
Ridl, who said he was “blown away” by the honor, told The Commercial Record:
“I grew up in a town a bit smaller than Douglas. There was one Main Street; however, the stores were all practical: pharmacy, hardware, barbershop, grocery, Jim Miller’s. If Jim didn’t have it, you didn’t need it. There were no galleries, boutiques, gift shops, emporia.
“Never would this kid have dreamed he would find a place where he felt he belonged. I was the kid staring out the window, the kid reading, listening to music, looking at art books, watching sticks float down Neshannock Creek. The kid who hid Tee Wee Cameron under the porch when the bullies chased him after school.
“Growing up, I could never figure out how to be cool. Oh I was a fine basketball and baseball player, but even so I never felt a part of the team.
“And as I looked around later, all I saw were things I was not cut out to do. In college I had four majors, not for any other reason than I was lost.
“To this day I have never found anything to do that the economy needs. I write poems. The phone does not ring with requests for poems. The poet Francis Ponge, when asked why he wrote poems, answered, ‘So everyone will leave me alone.’
“But I didn’t want everyone to leave me alone. I had experienced that for too long a time.
“Poems have brought me a life filled with people, events, experiences, students, surprises, worlds that could never have come my way if I had found something practical I could do. But still I never ‘belonged.’
“And now, after writing for more than 50 years, I have landed in another small town, a village of a city in fact, one whose main street is lined with shops that affirm who I was way back then, a town with a coffee shop whose owner has a great kind smile and whose great good heart thought the village could have, of all things, a Poet Laureate, and this honor could be mine. And the village has a council that did not roll its eyes, but said, ‘Why not?’
“And so that kid from a small town says thank you for bestowing what I would never dream could come my way, and thank you for not leaving me alone,” he said.
Ridl, who recently underwent surgery that will prevent him from hosting his annual late-August joint Red Dock reading, released his latest collection of poems “St. Peter and the Goldfinch” this spring.
“These poems,” says former U.S. Poet Laureate Bill Collins, “typically begin with a series of quiet, levelheaded observations and end in a wild imaginative leap. Jack Ridl has found a pattern that delights and surprises us poem by poem.”
Another early reader describes Ridl’s poems as “trout-quick, alternately funny and wondrous, instantly intimate and free of pretense.”
Ridl taught at Hope from 1971 until retiring in 2006. He is the author or editor of several collections of poetry, has published more than 300 poems in journals and has work included in numerous anthologies.
In addition, the Douglas resident has read his work and led workshops at colleges, universities, art colonies and other venues around the country.
Ridl has been recognized at Hope and beyond as a master teacher and for service. In 2014, the Poetry Society of Michigan appointed him honorary chancellor in recognition of the quality and beauty of his poetry and his participation in and support of the society.
The Community Literacy Initiative presented Ridl a Community Literacy Award in the area of Talent for outstanding contributions in increasing literacy levels and sustained depth and breadth in commitment to the advancement of literacy in West Michigan.
In 1996, he was chosen Michigan’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. More than 90 of Ridl’s former students are now publishing.
At Hope, the college’s graduating class presented him with the “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator Award” in 1976; he received the faculty appreciation award from the student body during Homecoming in 2003; and graduating seniors selected him to present commencement addresses in 1975 and 1986.
The college’s Visiting Writers Series, which he co-founded in 1982 with his wife Julie Garlinghouse Ridl, was named in his honor in 2006. His daughter, teacher/artist Merideth Ridl, designed the cover of “St. Peter.”
“Whereas,” reads the city’s proclamation of appointment, “a poet laureate is an eminent poet traditionally appointed for life as a member of the British royal household, inspiring the human mind through rhythmic language, and is appointed or regarded unofficially as holding an honorary representative position in a particular country, region or group, and
“Whereas, the City of the Village of Douglas views the importance of linguistic art throughout the history of humanity,
“Now let it be known the City of the Village of Douglas does hereby appoint Mr. Jack Ridl as honorary Poet Laureate for the city, and does call upon his skills to inspire, educate and entertain the residents and visitors of the city,” the Douglas resolution said.