A retired California professor of English who helped elevate the reputation of Nebraska author Willa Cather died Thursday in Pomona, Calif.
James Woodress had written two definitive Cather biographies published by the University of Nebraska Press, "Willa Cather: Her Life and Art" and "Willa Cather: A Literary Life." He died in his sleep at his home at age 94.
"He and a few others are really the pioneers of research into her life and work and really did things that paved the way for the growth in Cather studies in the past few decades," said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive and associate professor at University Libraries.
Woodress earned a bachelor's degree in English from Amherst College, a master's degree from New York University and a doctorate from Duke University. After serving in World War II, he taught at Grinnell College in Iowa and then at Butler University in Indiana. In the mid-1950s, he taught at California State University at Northridge.
In 1966, he moved to the University of California at Davis where he directed graduate studies in English and served as department chair.
He won the Hubbell Medal from the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association in 1985 for having a major influence on the study and teaching of American literature. In 1995, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln gave him an honorary doctorate of letters.
He also was the founder and editor of "American Literary Scholarship: An Annual," the standard guide to work in any given year.
Jim Rosowski, a retired UNL biology professor and longtime friend, said Woodress was once a newspaper reporter and "understood about deadlines and getting the facts right."
"He was a taskmaster," Rosowski said. "He mentored his students very closely. He was involved in their personal lives, as well as their academic ones."
Rosowski's wife, Susan, a UNL English professor who died in 2004, co-edited a series of scholarly editions of Cather's novels along with Woodress. He said Woodress left a collection of his Cather research to the university, as well as an endowment that supports visiting lecturers and summer research fellowships.
"He will be deeply missed by the Cather community," Rosowski said.