Even late in his life, when words and memory had begun to fade, John Judson knew a good poem when he heard it.
“His ear was still so good,” said friend and former student Mark Olson, who worked with Judson on his last book of poems. “He continued that ear very close to the end of his life, that delight in words and melody, rhythm.”
Recognized for his prolific work as a writer, his keen eye as an editor and publisher and his generosity as a teacher, Judson died Oct. 2 in Minneapolis. He was 89.
John Irving Judson was born Sept. 9, 1930, in Stratford, Conn., to Irving and Edna Judson. He graduated from Colby College in Maine and earned an MFA from the renowned Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
He met his wife, Joanne, while at Iowa. The two were married for 60 years and raised four children together.
Though Judson went on to become an English professor and write fiction and memoirs, poetry remained the through-line of his life.
For years Judson woke up early each morning to write — “There was a mandate about things being quiet,” recalled daughter Sara Heinzen — and in the summer, which the family spent at a cabin in Maine, he would spend long days writing outside.
In the 1960s, Judson launched Juniper Press and a literary journal called Northeast, and for decades he and Joanne — his frequent editor and collaborator — championed the work of previously unrecognized writers.
In 1965, Judson joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and taught creative writing and American literature for nearly three decades. Olson, who became an English professor at Hamline University, remembered Judson as a kind and creative teacher.
“Respect for humanity and each person’s humanity was very deep in John, so he would take students as they came, and go from there,” Olson said.
During the Vietnam War, Judson, a Korean War veteran, often worried over his students and tried to impart to them the importance of staying in school, Heinzen said.
“He tried so hard to help young men be able to get good enough grades,” she said, “and he would say to them, ‘You don’t realize by flunking what you’re doing. … You just have no idea what you’re heading into.’ ”
In 1972, the Judsons’ oldest son, William, was killed in a skiing accident in Maine. For a month afterward, Judson would wake each morning and light a candle atop the piano, leaving it lit all day, Joanne Judson said.
Two years later, John Judson published a book of poems titled “Ash is the Candle’s Wick.” The dedication reads: “These poems are for my son Bill, who loved skiing and the mountain on which he was killed, who loved life and dignity and Shakespeare, who taught himself laughter at the expense of his pain, and who taught me to be a father.”
Judson retired from the University of Wisconsin in 1991. In 2007, as his health began to deteriorate, he and Joanne moved to the Twin Cities. John Judson was in and out of memory care in his final years but always remained near Joanne, the subject of decades’ worth of love poems.
Judson made a point of getting to know the caregivers in the memory unit, often by simply asking questions, Heinzen said. Even when he could no longer find the words, she said, he remained acutely aware of those around him.
“He would just point at their eyes and say, ‘Those eyes, those eyes,’ ” she said.
In addition to his wife, Joanne, and daughter Sara Heinzen of St. Louis Park, Judson is survived by daughter Lisa Spencer of Rancho Mirage, Calif., son Gary Judson of Edina, and five grandchildren. Services have been held.