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Obituary: Professor, renowned writer John C. L’Heureux dies at 84

The prolific author grappled with faith, redemption, death and transcendence

Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

WJohn C. L’Heureux, a prolific American author, English professor emeritus and Lane Professor of Humanities, died at his home in Palo Alto on April 22 at the age of 84. He was survived by his wife of almost 50 years Joan L’Heureux, who said his passing was a result of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

L’Heureux was born in October of 1934 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He was a lifelong student, completing his bachelor’s in philosophy at Weston College, master’s degree in philosophy and English at Boston College and Licentiate of Sacred Theology (STL) at Woodstock College. He later received a master’s degree from Harvard University in English, despite the fact that he did not even apply.  

Before beginning his professorship at Stanford in 1973, L’Heureux taught at Harvard University, Georgetown and Tufts. Among L’Heureux’s most notable accomplishments at Stanford were his roles in directing the Creative Writing Program and Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship. He mentored students including fellow distinguished writers Harriet Doerr, Ron Hansen and National Medal of Arts recipient Tobias Wolff. Moreover, L’Heureux was twice honored with the distinction of the Stanford Humanities & Sciences Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

A colleague of L’Heureux’s, Eavan Boland — who currently serves as Director of the Creative Writing Program — remembers L’Heureux as a professor dedicated to the growth of his students. She told the Stanford University Press that “the stability of Creative Writing at Stanford, to this day, shows how solid, patient and generous his efforts were.”

L’Heureux was a contributing editor for The Atlantic Magazine, and also authored writings for Esquire and The New Yorker Magazine, which published one of his short stories in October of this past year. In a work about his battle with Parkinson’s Disease, L’Heureux wrote, “I’ve always held that the writer’s true reward is not money or fame but the writing process itself — making a good thing that did not exist before — and so I worked every day, with varying degrees of satisfaction.”

Over the course of his career, L’Heureux wrote nearly 20 volumes of fiction and poetry including “A Woman Run Mad,” “The Shrine at Altamira,” “The Miracle,” and most notably, “The Medici Boy.” L’Heureux elegantly balanced conflicting voices of joy, compassion and sarcasm in his pieces, as recounted by the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman.

Common themes throughout all of L’Heureux’s works were morality and faith and an emphasis in spirituality and philosophy. He drew from his 16 years as a Jesuit priest before leaving the priesthood in 1971. L’Heureux’s 1991 novel, “An Honorable Profession” examined the fictional story of a high school teacher arrested in front of his class on charges of sexually harassing one of his students through the perspective of religion and despair. When L’Heureux’s novel was published, he told the The New York Times that he “wanted to deal with the problem of guilt — a person guilty of many things, but not the thing he is accused of.”

As detailed in a piece for The New Yorker, while working on “The Medici Boy,” L’Heureux found it increasingly difficult to write, as if his fingers were unable to maintain pace with his thoughts. Before his death, L’Heureux considered ending his life, but ultimately gravitated toward comforting his loved ones despite his suffering. He credits religion for helping him understand the importance of being compassionate to his loved ones.

“In the service for the dead, the Catholic Church asks God to grant us all eternal rest,” he mused in a New Yorker article.  “And, after all the words squandered on right and wrong, failure and desire, love and the tragic failure to love, I am ready for eternal rest. Eternal rest. Even the sound is soothing.”

L’Heureux received two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim grant to pursue research for some of his most exceptional works. In the upcoming year, his last novel “The Beggar’s Pawn” and “The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast,” which is a collection of his most enduring published and unpublished works, will be released in commemoration of his professional and personal journeys.

A memorial Mass and reception will be held at the St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 25. L’Heureux was a prominent literary figure whose work not only gave readers insight into the journeys that culminated in the form of his life, but also inspired them to articulate their own. He will be missed by his family, the Stanford community and the literary world.

Contact Leily Rezvani at rezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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