Sci-fi legend Williamson dies

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

The man considered by many the “Dean of Science Fiction” — Jack Williamson — died Friday at his home in Portales. He was 98.

A prolific writer, Williamson authored more than 50 novels and numerous short stories, including eight novels completed after he turned 90. His first story, “The Metal Man,” was published in 1928, and he continued to work up until close to the time of his death.

The world-renowned science fiction writer was a professor emeritus of English at Eastern New Mexico University and taught a course at ENMU each spring. He also hosted the annual Jack Williamson Lectureship for science fiction sponsored by ENMU.

Though in failing health, he made a brief appearance at this spring’s 30th annual lectureship.

“I really think Jack was the best friend Portales, ENMU and the universe may have known,” said associate professor of English and a close Williamson associate at ENMU, Patrice Caldwell. “Locally, the loss of Jack to everyone is personal. Obviously, he is going to be a headliner loss for the world of science fiction, but the real loss is here with his family and friends.”

Caldwell said the one word that comes to mind in thinking of Williamson is “pioneer.”

“Literally, he came to New Mexico in a covered wagon, and he was also a pioneer in the world of science fiction,” Caldwell said. “He made the world of science fiction more than just a futuristic world for a few.”

Caldwell said he was of the generation where being a gentleman was respected, and he was kind to everyone he met.

ENMU Golden Library Special Collections Librarian Gene Bundy, who also worked with Williamson, agreed with Caldwell that the writer’s greatest trait was his kindness.

“I think Jack is probably the gentlest person I’ve ever met, and he was just able to put people at ease,” Bundy said. “He just kinda had a way of bringing the best out in people.”

Bundy took an English class Williamson taught at ENMU. He went on to take Williamson’s science fiction course, eventually taking it six times. He said he was always awed by the research the writer put into his work and effort to make everything in his books plausible.

“He wrote some stories that really had some good things to say,” Bundy said.

Caldwell said Williamson told her that he didn’t expect his friends to read his books.

“That’s a pretty remarkable ego that doesn’t have to be gratified,” Caldwell said.

According to an ENMU press release, Williamson was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 1975, only the second writer, after Robert Heinlein, to be so honored. He was also the winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, most recently in 2002 for his 54th novel, “The Ultimate Earth.” He had also received lifetime achievement awards from the World Fantasy Convention and Horror Writers of America.

Born in 1908 in Bisbee, Ariz., Williamson and his family came to southern Roosevelt County in 1915 in a covered wagon. He was a weather forecaster in the southwest Pacific during World War II, according to an article published in New Mexico Magazine in 2005, written by Wendel Sloan of ENMU Communication Services.

Williamson’s niece, Betty Williamson, of Portales, said he was 7 when the family moved to Roosevelt County and the oldest of the Williamson children.

“He always said it was one of the best adventures (moving to New Mexico in a covered wagon),” she said. “Jack remembered the trip really well, and it was good.”

Williamson said she admires her Uncle Jack, her dad, Jim, and their sisters for their hardiness in surviving as pioneers. However, she said she is more proud of the way they aged.

“They were all life-long learners,” she said.

She said while in their 80s they all bought computers and learned to use e-mail just so they could keep up with everyone and everything going on in the world.

She said the response from people in the science fiction community has been overwhelming and heartwarming for the family.

According to Sloan’s article, Williamson attended college at what is now West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, from 1928-30. He returned to college at Eastern New Mexico College, now ENMU in 1955. He received his bachelor of arts degree at ENMU in the spring of 1958 and had his master’s by the end of the fall 1958 semester.

He began work on his Ph.D. in 1959 at the age of 50 at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He finished that degree in 1964. His dissertation was “H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress.”

He became an assistant professor at ENMU in 1960, and in 1964, and already an accomplished science fiction writer, he taught his first science fiction course at the university. Williamson became a full professor in 1969.

In addition to his niece, Betty Williamson, he is survived by his brother and his wife, Jim and Nancy Williamson, of Roosevelt County; stepdaughter Adele Lovorn of Portales, and numerous stepgrandchildren, nieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Blanche Slaton Harp Williamson; a brother, Joe Williamson, and sister, Katie Littlefield.

A memorial service is tentatively planned for Thursday at ENMU.