“The last great poet of small town America,” Thad Stem, Jr.Â (1916-1980) lived all his life in North Carolina in the house where he was born, 104 East Front Street, Oxford. He was educated at Duke University, leaving in his fourth year several credits shy of earning his degree, and spent his early manhood in a variety of jobs until the outbreak of World War II, throughout which he served in the army. He began writing poetry in 1943 or 1944, and in 1945 nine of his poems were published in a single issue of Lyric, a Roanoke, Virginia, magazine. He continued to write sporadically for the next few years until his 1947 marriage to Marguerite “Dety” Laughridge Anderson, a widow with a three-year-old son. “I suddenly realized I had to get serious,” he would later say, and he began producing as much as 15,000 words a week: newspaper articles, essays, poems, and short fiction.
Between 1949 and 1950, he published two collections of poetry, one of essays, and The Animal Fair, a series of poetic sketches about small-town life. He also sold an estimated 8,000 short pieces to North Carolina newspapers, primarily the News and Observer and The Pilot, in addition to writing a weekly column that eventually became a daily editorial. Over the next two decades, he published eleven more books including poetry, essays, short stories, and North Carolina history. In the last two years of his life, despite kidney failure which required weekly dialysis, he continued to produce articles, short stories, editorials, and Thad Stem’s Ark, a collection of essays, poems and a story. A seventeenth volume, a history of Johnston County, was in progress at the time of his death.
The consistent excellence of Thad Stem’s art was rooted in his love for his home. He wrote lyrically of Oxford’s quiet streets and summer nights, and movingly but without sentimentality of the people of Granville County. Near the end of his life he said, “All my life I’ve believed that the chief importance of learning is that ultimately one is naked save for it…learning is always the seed corn to grow another crop.” A man much loved by children, he was designated by Oxford’s young people as “Our man for all seasons.” His home state honored him with the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1974.
Read Thad Stem’s essay, “Day of the Fabulous Fire Horse” as it appeared in the Charlotte Observer on June 12, 1966.