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Renowned author and alumna Rilla Askew donates archive to TU

two women standing beside each other in a room
Dean Karen Petersen and Rilla Askew

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collections and Archives draws students, scholars, journalists and the culturally curious from around the world to explore its literary, historical, photographic, artistic and material treasures. Among its gems are manuscripts and published works by such major writers as Muriel Spark, Christopher Isherwood, James Joyce and Sir V.S. Naipaul. Recently, this trove was substantially enriched when internationally renowned author and TU alumna Rilla Askew (BA ’80) gifted her literary archive to the university.

“Rilla Askew’s generous donation is a remarkable and deeply appreciated addition to our university’s intellectual and cultural life,” commented Karen Petersen, dean of Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. “Over the past few decades, Rilla has combined her creative dynamism with her passion for history and social justice to develop a body of work that is at once inspiring, path-breaking and always immersive. On behalf of everyone at TU, I extend sincere thanks for entrusting this astonishing archive to our community.”

Creativity and excellence

A member of the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, Askew was born in Poteau, a small town nestled amongst the Sans Bois Mountains in the southeastern part of the state. Raised in Bartlesville, Askew lived in Tahlequah for a number of years before moving to Tulsa and completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre at TU in 1980. Later that same year, Askew moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. Rather than seeking the limelight of performance, however, Askew went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Brooklyn College in 1987.

two white file boxes on a metal shelf (left box has Fire in Beulah written on the side; right box has Early Writing and Unfinished Second Novel written on the side)
A small portion of the Rilla Askew Archive at McFarlin Library

Since then, Askew has published four novels, a collection of short stories and another of creative nonfiction pieces, as well as essays, plays and articles. The gamut of topics Askew has covered is broad and varied. Over the years, for example, she has applied her fictional alchemy to spinning tales involving white settlements in Indian Territory (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre (Fire in Beulah) and hardscrabble life in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl (Harpsong). While it is impossible tidily to encapsulate her oeuvre, Askew points out that “woven throughout my work are strong threads of social justice, racial and class-based inequity, women’s suffering and endurance, and the persistence of memory.”

Since beginning her writing career, Askew has received numerous honors and awards. These include the Oklahoma Book Award, Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Her work has also been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Dublin IMPAC Prize, among others.

Tulsa treasures

Askew lived in New York for over three decades, but in 2015 she came home to Oklahoma. She now resides in Norman, where she is an associate professor of English teaching creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

Handwritten letter in red ink with the printed words Viking Penguin at the top
One of the many letters in the Rilla Askew Archive

Askew’s decision to gift her archive to her alma mater arose out of several overlapping considerations. TU has long been a welcoming intellectual and cultural community for me,” Askew commented. “In addition, the McFarlin literary archives are internationally renowned, and the librarians do such a wonderful job of preserving and making available materials for students, scholars and the public. And, of course, there’s Tulsa itself. In many ways, this city helped shape me. Some of my most important early years as an artist and a writer were spent here, and I still feel very connected to this city and its people.”

Among the many fascinating items in the Askew Archive are ideas jotted down by the author, drafts representing various stages of her published works, background reading on subjects that informed her narratives, sample dust jackets and reviews. One set of documents, however, holds a special place in their donor’s heart. “When I was researching, planning and writing my first novel, The Mercy Seat, and afterward, I was in regular correspondence with my agent, editors and readers. Rereading their letters — most of them handwritten – after so many years touched me deeply and brought back wonderful memories. I am so glad they now have a permanent home at TU, and I hope that others will find them interesting too.”

Visitors who want to delve into the Askew Archive, which currently awaits professional cataloging, will find 10 hefty filing boxes stuffed full with such fascinating glimpses of the author’s craft and life. And because Askew continues to be as vibrant and productive as ever (her fifth novel, Prize for the Fire, will transport readers to 16th-century England when it debuts this October), the quantity of materials available to consult at McFarlin will grow over the years as Askew adds to her donation.

young man photographed from behind while seated at a table reading letters
Reading correspondence in the Askew Archive

The dedicated staff of Special Collections and Archives at The University of Tulsa looks forward to welcoming you. Come explore with us!

’Cane Crowd 2020

Each fall for the past two years, The University of Tulsa has held an annual crowdfunding campaign called ’Cane Crowd. Its mission: to raise funds for projects that support TU students and the wider community. This year, the campaign will run from Monday, Nov. 30, to Friday, Dec. 4, including #GivingTuesday on Dec. 1.

Madison Cotherman, TU’s director of annual and affinity giving, is leading the 2020 ‘Cane Crowd campaign. According to Cotherman, ’Cane Crowd plays a distinctive role: “While most university fundraising efforts happen on a large scale, drawing attention and funds to entire colleges or scholarship endowments, ’Cane Crowd is an opportunity to highlight unique and timely projects happening at TU with smaller fundraising goals that are under $10,000.” Rather than focusing on larger projects, ’Cane Crowd seeks to help raise money for smaller initiatives.

Each year, the ’Cane Crowd organizers solicit project pitches from students, faculty and staff. All four projects selected for TU’s third ‘Cane Crowd attempt to address challenges facing TU students, while one of them also extends the university’s resources out into the community.

1921 Race Massacre Centennial Coalition

Two people standing outside the College of Law building with the words seeking justice superimposedThe first project is focused on supporting the work of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Coalition, a new entity in TU’s College of Law comprised of students, faculty and alumni. The Coalition’s mission is to mark the centennial of the tragedy with hope and action. Members hope to launch new programming, such as pop-up legal clinics in the Greenwood area and establish a scholarship endowment to foster diversity within TU Law.

This project’s fundraising goal is $10,000. The money will go toward programming costs, such as rent for the pop-up legal clinic locations. If the Coalition reaches its goal, loyal alumni and local law firms have agreed to match that. Those “challenge gift” funds would go toward the scholarship endowment. “I can think of no better way to honor the Greenwood Community and legacy of Black Wall Street than by hosting legal clinics and establishing a scholarship for a deserving TU Law student. Please join us and be a part of history,” said Dwain Midget (JD ’03), the Coalition’s chair.

TU Food Pantry

Carrots, corn and other vegetables in open tins with the words meeting needs superimposedThe second project is directed at establishing a TU Food Pantry, which is being launched on campus in late December or early January by True Blue Neighbors and Sharp Chapel. In a recent survey, 25% of participating TU students reported they had experienced food insecurity, and even more reported they could not afford to eat healthy and balanced meals. “Food insecurity on college campuses is a growing problem across the county,” said Melissa Abdo, the program coordinator for True Blue Neighbors and the lead on this project. “We are excited to partner on this TU Food Pantry project to provide fresh produce, proteins and pantry staples, ensuring our students have access to healthy food.”

The Food Pantry team’s fundraising goal is $5,000. If they reach that objective, those funds will help transform TU’s bike shop space into a welcoming and functional food pantry through the purchase of refrigerators and other necessary equipment.

Textbook Reserve Program

The third project aims to fund a new Textbook Reserve Program at TU. Everyone knows that textbooks can be expensive, but the ability to afford those prices should not inhibit a student’s success in the classroom. To help solve this challenge and work to expand resources, McFarlin Library plans to launch the Textbook Reserve Program to increase affordable student access to classroom material.

an open book in front of shelves of books with the words expanding resources superimposed“A donation to the Textbook Reserve Program would go directly toward purchasing a copy of all required undergraduate textbooks over $100,” remarked April Schweikhard, the director of library public services and the project’s lead. “Students would be able to check out their textbooks from McFarlin Library throughout the semester and have more access to the course materials they need to succeed.”

This project’s goal is $10,000. With those funds, the library would start acquiring all required undergraduate textbooks that cost more than $100. Students would then be able to check them out for a few hours at a time throughout the semester.

Virtual Reality for Nursing Education

In addition to the many challenges posed by the global pandemic, COVID-19 has also complicated how TU’s nursing students achieve their required clinical hours. The School of Nursing is looking to raise $5,300 to amplify its use of virtual reality (VR) technology. Additional VR equipment and software would allow current students to continue getting the skills training they need, even if remotely.

A woman wearing a virtual reality helmet and holding a virtual reality wand with the words embracing innovation superimposedA donation to the Virtual Reality for Nursing Education project would go directly toward purchasing equipment and software to begin engaging all students in this innovative teaching modality. Bill Buron, the director of the School of Nursing and the lead on this project, observed: “Expanded VR would provide students a safe and realistic simulated environment for engaging in clinical experiences that have been more limited in real life due to COVID-19. Because there is a severe shortage of nursing faculty nationwide and the average age of a nursing faculty is approaching 60, new and innovative teaching strategies are needed that may save faculty time while actively engaging students in learning and developing clinical and critical thinking skills in increasingly complex healthcare environments.” In addition, this project would kickstart collaborations between the TU School of Nursing and the Tandy School of Computer Science as the two units work together to develop new and engaging VR software to teach students particular clinical nursing skills.

Be part of ’Cane Crowd 2020! Learn more and pitch in from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.

McFarlin Library remains open with online services

As COVID-19 continues to affect daily life and normal operations at The University of Tulsa, campus departments are doing their part to accommodate student learning, faculty instruction and scholarly research. The McFarlin Library staff have pitched in with their own innovative solutions. The most direct way to access library resources, such as remote research help and virtual instructional services, is to visit

“While the physical building is not accessible, the services and resources are still available,” said Adrian Alexander, R.M. and Ida McFarlin Dean of the Library. “Our people are working remotely and virtually. A lot of what we regularly do involves providing access to electronic databases and other resources we link to in the Cloud, and we are maintaining that posture.”

McFarlin LibraryMcFarlin Library’s temporary closure includes all computer labs and the physical space of Special Collections, but the staff continues to supply copies and distance reference services as normal.

McFarlin’s 26-person staff understands how critical a time this in the semester for students completing final papers, reports and other year-end projects; library employees are answering questions via email, phone and text.

“We always encourage students to reach out to us. We’re doing everything we can to help people navigate our services and content. We will work to find a solution for every request,” said April Schweikhard, director of library public services.

Many scholars already are in the practice of accessing McFarlin remotely for scanned copies of vital digital research materials or online content, but for those students and researchers who still need physical resources, the library is offering a limited checkout option. TU students, faculty, and staff can request materials from the physical collection to pick up at designated dates and times. Pickup is currently available on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Requests must be submitted by midnight the night before.

“We’re adapting as we go along, but we’re in communication with libraries across the country to share information, learn best practices and take recommendations from one another,” Alexander explained.

Access to databases, e-journals and e-books, and research guides is readily available. Interlibrary loan requests for physical books and documents are prohibited temporarily, but staff members are still fulfilling interlibrary loan submissions for electronic materials, including journal articles.

Alexander, Schweikhard and Director of Bibliographic Services, Elizabeth Szkirpan, have led the charge to mobilize McFarlin’s staff remotely and provide quality customer service to all students, faculty and researchers. “The work goes on,” Alexander said, “and everyone has done a great job of meeting the challenge.”

Have library questions? Contact a McFarlin librarian by calling 918-631-2871, texting 224-357-6350 (22helpme50) or emailing

Reading of the green: Irish treasures in TU’s Special Collections

In the middle of March each year, Tulsa, like much of the Western world, goes a wee bit barmy for all things Irish. Guinness flows, green beads get tossed and eyes moisten to the warbling strains of “Danny Boy” and “Wearing o’ the Green.” Here at The University of Tulsa, St. Patrick’s Day is a good moment to reflect on the extensive Irish materials kept within the Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

Infographic illustrating the number of volumes, archival objects and collections in Special Collections at McFarlin LibraryIn this rather magical part of McFarlin Library affectionately referred to as “TU’s Attic,” students, scholars and the public encounter everything from medieval music manuscripts and a 1493 printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle to published and unpublished writings by such internationally regarded literary figures as Nobel Laureate Sir V.S. Naipaul, Muriel Spark, Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman and Robert Bly. With the centenary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, Special Collections’ gathering of World War I posters and photographs garnered a lot of attention. Lately, there has been a surge of interest in the many photographs, books and other records associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Shamrock Modernism

The Irish literary holdings in Special Collections are a particularly bright jewel in this dazzling archival crown.

One of the prime movers behind gathering Irish materials was Thomas F. Staley. Beginning in the 1950s, Staley – who was an English professor and TU’s provost – spearheaded an effort to build a concentration in British, Irish and American literature associated with the aesthetic and cultural movement called Modernism. Working with his colleagues in the Department of English and McFarlin Library, Staley strategically expanded to Special Collections’ Modernist literary assets. To this day, subsequent librarians have continued to build upon that Hibernian foundation.

Staley had a particular interest in one Irish Modernist author: James Joyce. In 1963, Staley founded the James Joyce Quarterly (JJQ), and this peer-reviewed scholarly periodical continues to be published at TU. Today, it is under the editorship of Professor of English Sean Latham. Besides being the focus of this international journal, Joyce is one of the main Irish authors whose works – and a catsup-stained necktie – are found in the university’s Special Collections.

Special Collections, Ireland and literary modernism


“The centerpiece of our Irish collection truly is the James Joyce library,” noted Adrian Alexander, the R. M. and Ida McFarlin Dean of the Library. “It is also the genesis of our Irish literature collecting.” Indeed, TU’s holdings are one of the world’s five most significant repositories of Joyce materials.

The other luminaries of Irish Modernism present in Special Collections are Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, William Trevor and Richard Murphy (a poet who taught for a short while at TU). Adding to these Irish treasures are dozens of boxes containing the research files of Richard Ellmann, a highly regarded American scholar who wrote landmark biographies of Yeats (1948), Joyce (1959; rev ed. 1982) and Wilde (1984).

Surprised by Joyce

One scholar who over the years has delved deeply into Ellmann’s Joyce materials is William Brockman, the Paterno Family Librarian for Literature at Penn State University and the bibliographer for the checklist of writings about Joyce that appears in each JJQ issue. Brockman’s most recent visit to Tulsa was in February, when he spent several days continuing a years-long international search for unpublished letters by Joyce (Brockman is part of a team of scholars developing a digital collection of Joyce’s unpublished letters).

William Brockman in Special Collections at McFarlin Library
William Brockman

“The staff at TU Special Collections has been wonderful to work with,” Brockman noted. “And doing this kind of research is a lot of fun and always enlightening. You never know what you’re going to be surprised by. So far during this trip to Tulsa I’ve found Ellmann’s photocopies of two Joyce letters that I didn’t know about – that nobody knew about. They were hidden away in an unlikely folder.” When Brockman locates such items, he takes photographs of them that then become his working copies for use back in Pennsylvania.

“These and other letters,” Brockman explained, “are valuable because of the light they shed on Joyce’s works. He wasn’t an easy writer. Knowing more about his life through the letters really brings you into deeper contact with his published writings.

“Joyce was very down to earth in his letters, and he could also be quite entertaining and funny. I have enjoyed watching the alteration in voice that he uses; for example, he became quite casual and jocular when writing to Ezra Pound, compared to his more formal style in the letters to his Aunt Josephine or his benefactor Harriet Weaver. The letters also tell us about the contexts in which he wrote, such as Ireland ruled by the Roman Catholic Church and Britain, Trieste under the Austro-Hungarian empire, Zurich during the First World War and Paris until the Germans invaded in 1940.”

Joyce in 100 Objects

For the last three years, the JJQ has been running an occasional web series called Joyce in 100 Objects. The series “seeks to tell the story of the Irish author’s extraordinary life and career through the papers, objects and books in McFarlin Library’s Special Collections,” explained Latham.

Title page of James Joyce's poetry collection Pomes Penyeach
Title page of Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach

The initiative was initially led by Mason Whitehorn Powell, a TU English major who became fascinated by the many cultural treasures that reside at the heart of the campus. Working with the JJQ staff, he began photographing the materials and creating short narratives that tell a story through the things Joyce wrote, owned and published.

Inscription by James Joyce in Harriet Shaw Weaver's copy of Pomes Penyeach
Joyce’s inscription in Harriet Shaw Weaver’s copy of Pomes Penyeach

One example of an “object” curated in this series is Joyce’s tiny book of 13 poems titled Pomes Penyeach. Printed in Paris by Shakespeare and Company in 1927, this slim volume contains poems Joyce wrote between 1904 and 1924 in Dublin, Trieste, Zurich and Paris. Special Collections’ copy is one of only 13 copies printed on Dutch hand-made paper, and it bears Joyce’s initials, inscription to “H.W.” (Joyce’s supporter and patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver) and the date.



“Inside of the boxes were many things:” Joyce, Ireland and archival wonder

Let’s leave the last word on Joyce and the TU archive to a student – Sydney Rubin – whose work regularly takes her to Special Collections.

There are some writers whose names are invoked like saints. Whose words are whispered like scripture on the lips of readers. Like holy artifacts, their letters, artifacts, treasures and trash are collected and preserved in glass and boxes.

James Joyce is one of these writers, not just for his Irish countrymen, but for readers the world over.

As a child, I visited Ireland and, while in Dublin, a museum dedicated to Joyce. I gazed with wonder at his books, letters and other personal items preserved there. Many years and journeys later, I found my way to TU’s Special Collections, another sort of Irish and Joycean repository.

The Jack and Tybie Satin Rare Book Room at McFarlin Library
The Jack and Tybie Satin Rare Book Room, McFarlin Library

Special Collections is an archipelago of knowledge that cannot be found on websites, servers or in any database. Only on old paper growing older. And more than that, I know, as everyone that sees such places must know, that upon each visit I am seeing only the surface of the collection.

On one of my first trips to the top of McFarlin Library, I asked to see “the Joyce archive.” The archivists smiled, and I knew immediately that what I had requested did not exist; at least, not in the form I had conceived. There was no singular “Joyce archive” but, rather, archives upon archives, spilling into each other, bounded with uncertain borders, gathered haphazardly from Ireland, from Trieste, from around the world.

The archivists drew my half-random, guessed-at selections out of storage and brought them to me in the shadowy Satin Room. Every box was neatly bound. I opened each one reverently. Inside of the boxes were many things. Old essays Joyce had written as a child, then as a college student. Countless letters, not all written by him, many from his family members, friends, acquaintances. Richard Ellmann, the biographer who had gathered this particular portion of the Joyce archives, had compiled every scrap of Joyce he could find with the same meticulous yet undiscerning eye of a magpie assembling a nest of ribbon, golden beads, grass and feathers plucked from her own breast.

Even Joyce’s tie was there, a bit stained, but looking surprisingly new, like something that could be stumbled upon in anyone’s drawer. There was a carefully wrapped porcelain statue of a white lion, so large it took up a box all its own. Joyce, who apparently adored lions, had given it to a friend, saying the friend reminded him of a lion.

Crayon portrait of James Joyce by August John with Joyce's signature in the bottom left
Crayon portrait of James Joyce by Augustus John (signed by Joyce)

Everything of Joyce’s had the touch of Ireland in it. Although he left Ireland early in his career and never returned, in every box I saw that he carried his country with him always. Joyce wrote about Ireland the way one would speak of a difficult parent: angry and loving, regretful and forgiving, bitter and nostalgic. Ireland was always his, which is such an obvious statement to those who read his books, that it may seems strange to even mention. Yet, the way every artifact he possessed was steeped in Irish culture told this truth in a different tongue.

So many of his friends, family and acquaintances from Ireland wrote to Ellmann, speaking of their impressions of Joyce from his childhood. A college classmate remembered him as having seemed arrogant, but seen again through the re-evaluating eyes of an old man, the former classmate wrote that Joyce seemed instead to have been lonely, and slightly sad, like one who always wished to join in on the merriment of his Irish student peers, but held himself apart.

People who had known Joyce during his lifetime, before his canonization in the chapels of literature, people who had never read his books or ever thought of him as a genius but only as the child and young man he had been, wrote of him as a little boy, playing like any other, or as a studious young teen or as a quirky, superstitious adult.

Joyce’s physicians wrote of his sickness and death from an ulcer as they would any other patient. No one was with him in the hospital when he died, although he called for his family repeatedly. He died far from his country, and was only buried there afterward, when his body was unearthed and then reinterred. Much like Joyce’s books, his body was welcomed home only afterward, when the words and books he had written had accrued enough time to sink in and become valued as the potent astringents for Ireland, and for all of us, that they are.


Department of English PhD student Sydney RubinSydney Rubin is a doctoral candidate in TU’s Department of English Language and Literature. She loves writing novellas, poems, short stories, essays and novels, and she is currently editing and illustrating the Eden trilogy. Rubin spends her days discussing the intelligence of plants, the new generation of supercomputers made of molecules and strands of DNA and her belief that the world is haunted, especially in the least likely places, such as a middle-school locker or the deepest reaches of the ocean.


Winter fun under the sun: Campus edition

By: Matthew Sexter

I distinctly remember the overwhelming excitement that overtook me as I woke up on a Wednesday morning to see that The University of Tulsa’s campus was entirely covered under a blissful blanket of snow. I wasted no time jumping into the biggest jacket I could find in my wardrobe and joining my friends outside to partake in glorious snowball wars, building gargantuan snowmen and sledding down the ginormous hill outside of the Reynolds Center.

The University of Tulsa campus covered in snow
Dietler Commons looking charming blanketed in snow

This was easily one of the most fun-filled days I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t imagine this snow day being this magical anywhere except at my home away from home at TU! Too bad it melted after just one day.

Fifteen University of Tulsa freshman students in a room
Me and a group of other freshmen surprising fellow student Hailyn Sandres

During this second semester of my freshman year, my classes have definitely amped up in difficulty. But I have absolute confidence that this challenge is nothing I cannot handle. This is because of the bountiful resources at TU, which have always been easily accessible and endlessly useful in ensuring successful outcomes in all of my classes.

Matthew Sexter with Ellis Brown and Namera Newaz after they won the Mr. and Ms. International talent show
Me with Ellis Brown and Namera Newaz after they won the Mr. and Ms. International talent show at TU

For example, the Center for Student Academic Success (CSAS) took out a lot of the stress of studying for my math midterm and final exam by quickly putting me in touch with a 1-on-1 tutoring session. The staff at McFarlin Library were also an invaluable resource while I composed the final research paper for one of my classes. Without these resources at my disposal, the amount of time and energy I would’ve expended, in merely these two classes, would’ve been tenfold.

As second-semester midterms rapidly approach, I take solace in knowing that the bountiful resources, approachable faculty and supportive friends I have met here at TU will have my back – and vice versa!

The word smile written in green on white snow
Something to smile about

It happened while we were all asleep, Snow had fallen—six feet deep.
The temperature was ten below.
All the roads were blocked with snow. “No school today,” the radio said. “Stay at
home in your cozy bed. So, I quickly dressed and jumped on my sled.”
-Carolyn Yacowitz


Matthew Sexter is a first-year student at The University of Tulsa pursuing a bachelor of science in nursing degree. He is an avid automotive enthusiast, sci-fi binge-watcher and global traveler.