enriching, engaging, educational

Take a Look — It’s in a Book

Visiting Writers Series Celebrates 35 Years of Inspiration, Creativity and Artistry

Drawings hung on a board

Take a piece of paper and scribble on it.

Now pass it to your neighbor and turn that scribble into a monster.

These were the directions given to students, faculty and staff by Lynda Barry during her visit to

Lenoir-Rhyne’s campus this September as part of the Visiting Writers Series (VWS). A comic artist, writer, teacher, and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Barry kicked off the 35th season of VWS with flair and imagination.


When Rand Brandes, Ph.D., faculty emeritus and Martin Luther Stevens Professor of English, came to LR in 1988, he invited Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon to campus to give a reading.

“I said to him, ‘Paul, come to Hickory, North Carolina. We’ll give you $500, beer and pizza, and you can sleep on a couch.’  We started out small, but LR valued what the writers series could do for not only our student body but for the Hickory community,” shared Brandes.

Rand Brandes, left, and Seanus Heaney, right
Rand Brandes, Ph.D. (left), sits with Irish poet and playwright Seamus Heaney in 1994. Heaney spoke at LR in 1991 as part of VWS.

In the beginning years of the series — then known as In Their Own Words — Brandes called upon friends, friends of friends, colleagues, and professional peers to help bring authors to the Hickory campus. During those first five years, notable visitors included novelist Lee Smith; North Carolina poets Betty Adcock, Gerald Barrax, Susan Ludvigson, James Applewhite; and Reynolds Price.

Brandes received support early on for the series from now-retired dean of Lenoir-Rhyne, Robert Spuller, Ph.D. They both saw the series as a vital part of the university’s long-standing tradition of being immersed in the community. “Few colleges have the deep relationships with their communities that Lenoir-Rhyne has, and the Visiting Writers Series has helped contribute greatly to that relationship over the years,” said Brandes.

That relationship has continued to foster and grow as partnerships were formed with the Hickory Public Library in the tenth year of the series — helping to bring authors Ernest J. Gaines and J. California Cooper, as well as noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote, to the area for readings and book signings.

To connect with the community’s children and help instill an early love of books, a reading initiative called The Little Read was launched in 2007 as part of the series. A gift made by Ron and Sandra Deal in memory of their daughter Sara Catherine Deal Temple, a reading specialist at Oakwood Elementary School in Hickory, helped to start the program. 

A group of children watch a play on a stage
Elementary school students watch a production of Jarrett and Jeromy Pumphrey’s ‘The Old Truck’ as part of The Little Read performed in P.E. Monroe by the LR Playmakers.

In its first year, 600 fourth and fifth graders from Hickory’s five elementary schools participated by reading “Bud, Not Buddy” and “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” by 2000 Newbery Medal Winner Christopher Paul Curtis.

Inspiring the next generation to read has continued for VWS as The Little Read has brought authors such as Bruce Lansky, Mary Pope Osborne, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey.

“The Little Read is a special program that has made such an impact on the students who have attended since its inception,” Brandes said. “We had an LR student last year who won the highest literary award that our English program gives, and in her acceptance speech she shared she became interested in writing by coming to The Little Read and winning the third-grade writing contest. And here she is, 15 years later.”


After 34 years with the university and as head of the VWS, Brandes retired at the end of May 2023. “The program is going strong and now felt like the time to try my hand at some new opportunities,” said Brandes. “I’ll really miss the students. Seeing them light up and seeing them have that opportunity to shake someone’s hand, or have that conversation. But I know they will continue to flourish and learn with the amazing faculty at LR.”

Morgan Parker sits on a stage across from another person
American poet and novelist Morgan Parker visited campus as part of VWS in Feb. 2020.

With his retirement, the VWS torch was passed to Laura Crawley, Ph.D., vice president for mission, engagement and innovation, who shares a passion for the series' past as well as its future.

“During the last 35 years, VWS and The Little Read have enriched the educational experience for LR students and elementary students at dozens of public schools across the region. It’s about more than schoolwork, though. The VWS enriches our entire community,” said Crawley. “These celebrated authors have engaged in conversation with us about the big questions of human existence: Who are we supposed to be? What are we here to do? What kind of world do we want to live in together?”

Crawley continues, “These authors and the series have given us opportunities to pause, take a few deep breaths, and really engage with the human experience in all its wonderful and challenging diversity. That’s what storytelling has always offered to human beings — the chance to imagine ourselves in relation to others, in community.”

With Crawley at the helm, the 35th season kicked off on September 14 in P.E. Monroe Auditorium with Barry’s talk and hands-on drawing activities. “This season we focused on getting a mix of illustrators, novelists, poets, and writers from varying genres and backgrounds,” said Crawley. The series is also going on the road this year to LR’s extended campuses. “We are thrilled with the buzz not only in the Hickory community but at our Asheville and Columbia campuses for these events. This is the first season where we have had authors present a talk at the Hickory campus as well as at the Asheville campus (Barry) and Columbia (Kaitlin Curtice).”

Lynda Barry holds up a drawing
Lynda Barry

As the series is underway, Crawley is excited for the future and even more opportunities to bring communities together. “The series offers a platform and a bridge between the university and the communities where we live and learn, so we can connect with a shared sense of belonging and cultural understanding. This legacy continues, challenging and uplifting us with every new event.”

In looking to the future and the 36th season, we had to ask Crawley, ‘who would you invite to be part of the Visiting Writers Series – living or dead?’

“It would have to be Kurt Vonnegut. He was a literary genius and a deeply compassionate and funny person who remained committed to the beauty he found in humanity even after he had experienced first-hand the horrors that human beings can inflict on one another,” said Crawley. “He was refreshingly direct. He wrote in "Breakfast of Champions" that ‘We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.’ He also said, ‘If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.’”

“That’s what the Visiting Writers Series is all about — circulating ideas in our community, giving us opportunities to engage and be challenged and to learn something new from one another, and perhaps even from ourselves.”

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