Trailblazer Trailblazer Trailblazer

Colleen McElroy, 1935-2023, was the first Black woman promoted to full professor at the UW.

By Jon Marmor | Photo by Jana Freiband, courtesy of MacDowell | March 2024

Giants have walked the hallways of the English Department at the University of Washington, none more prolific or inspiring as Colleen J. McElroy. The first Black woman to become a full-time faculty member at the UW, McElroy, ’73, was not only a beloved teacher and mentor but a writer of many genres who established herself as one of the great American poets of our time.

A native of St. Louis who was born in 1935 into a military family, McElroy’s writing knew no bounds. She penned fiction, nonfiction, short stories, memoir, travel writing, television screenplays and plays for the stage.

“I became a storyteller long before I became a poet,” she told interviewer Bill Kenower in a 2013 Author Magazine interview at University Book Store. “My mother had many sisters, and they would gather in my grandmother’s house. This was during World War II so the men were off fighting. And they would tell stories about everybody. And I learned how to listen to those stories, figure out what was going on.

“My father was in the service, so we moved around a bit. When I would come back to St. Louis, I would tell stories about where I had been. And I told them so well, that some of the kids didn’t believe them at all.”

McElroy earned a Ph.D. in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the UW in 1973. That year, she joined the UW faculty. From 1973 to 1981, she supervised first-year composition in the Equal Opportunity Program, and in 1984, she became the first Black woman to be promoted to full professor at the UW.

She published 16 books, served as editor of the Seattle Review and received numerous honors including two National Endowments for the Arts Fellowships. Among the hundreds of students she taught and mentored were Ada Limón, ’98, the current U.S. Poet Laureate. It’s only fitting.

McElroy died of natural causes at the age of 88 on Dec. 12.

Sometimes the Way It Rains Reminds Me of You

by Colleen J. McElroy

these days I speak of myself in the past tense
writing about yesterday knowing tomorrow
is no more than mist crawling toward violet mountains
I think of days when this weather meant you
were not so far away   the light changing
so fast I believe I can see you turning a corner
the rain comes in smelling of pine and moss
a kind of brazen intrusion on the careful seeds of spring
I pay more attention to details these days
saving the most trivial until I sort them for trash
or recycle   a luxury I’ve come to know only recently
you have never been too far from my thoughts
despite the newborn birds and their erratic songs
the way they tilt their heads as if drowsing for the sun
the way they repeat their singular songs
over and over as if wishing for a different outcome


Copyright © 2015 by Colleen J. McElroy. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 29, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.