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Nora Shepard: Poet, Teacher, Advocate

The way she tells it, Nora Hutton Shepard, was practically born at NC State. Literally.

“My father became flustered in transporting my mother to the hospital and drove to a building on Hillsborough Street. There he discovered his mistake and arrived at Rex Hospital on the corner of St. Mary’s and Wade Avenue with just a bit of time to spare,” Shepard shares with a smile.

Shepard, a poet and alumna of the college’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program, was  honored at the NC State Alumni Association’s eighth annual Evening of Stars gala as the 2011 CHASS Distinguished Alumna.

“Nora has given a good bit of her generous life to the arts, both as a remarkable poet and painter, but also as a promoter of the arts in our lives in the Triangle,” says John Balaban, director of NC State’s creative writing program and the university’s poet-in-residence.

After nearly being born on campus, Shepard’s involvement with NC State resumed in the early 1970s, after she graduated from Hollins University in Virginia with a double major B.A. in English and American literature and creative writing (poetry). She occasionally enrolled in a writing or painting class at  NC State while she was also working for the North Carolina Museum of Art. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Shepard spent her time advancing the arts in the Triangle area – serving as the founding president of the Museum of Art’s docent organization, helping to launch the community arts school Arts Together, and volunteering in the preservation of historic homes.

“I always found NC State to be such a warm and welcoming place,” she recalls. “When my husband and I were building our home outside Edenton, we spent a lot of time at the College of Design’s library looking into architecture. And then when we had school-aged daughters, we’d take them to D.H. Hill library for research and studying. We loved being on campus and using the resources available here.”

But Shepard’s involvement with the creative writing program came about a bit more serendipitously.

“A friend had given me a brochure for a summer writing program at NC State in 2001,” she says. “At the time, there was not a master of fine arts program, but there were lots of wonderful creative writing people in the college. It wasn’t even in my mind to get a degree. I just wanted to be a better writer.”

Shepard signed up for the writing program workshop that NC State held in conjunction with the NC Writers’ Network. Her teacher was poet Betty Adcock. Shepard followed Adcock to Meredith College for additional classes. “At some point, Betty told me that this poet named John Balaban—who was a two-time National Book Award nominee—was going to be directing a new creative writing program at NC State,” Shepard remembers. “Betty asked me to take a class with him, so I did. I felt very brave, taking that class at my age, but it was wonderful. I loved being with the students. I loved their hearts and their minds. And along with Betty, John Balaban became my mentor.”

While Shepard was taking one course every semester as a continuing education student, the college was launching the MFA program. “I ended up having enough credits that if I took a few more general courses and put together a thesis, I could get my MFA degree,” she says.

Shepard graduated with her MFA in 2005. Today, she teaches a poetry course in the college each semester. “I wish I could teach more than that, but I’m swimming for my life every semester trying to find things that speak to my students,” Shepard explains. “I can’t prepare for my class until I get to know my students and we start building a respectful community. So it’s different every semester. I want to reach each student individually. I go to bed thinking about them, and I wake up thinking about them.”

Shepard’s commitment to, and love for, the college’s creative writing program is contagious. “For the last four or five years, I’ve worked behind the scenes to spread the word that this top-notch MFA program is not down the road at Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill. It is right here at NC State. We’re the only ones with this degree. The capital city of Raleigh is full of world-class ballet, art museums, symphonies and more – but most people don’t know about the rich literary community that NC State has helped to build.”

As for a fine arts program being housed at a university primarily known as a science and technology powerhouse, Shepard says that while no one will argue the strength of NC State’s technical prowess, “the humanities are the heartbeat that students crave. We’re about educating an entire person. If you have the finest minds coming to study technology, science and engineering, why would you want to give them anything less than the best all-around education? NC State is doing that.

“Scientists and poets alike are going to have lives with hopes and dashed hopes, with dreams and dimmed  dreams. They are going to wonder, ‘How do I feel?’ ‘How do I fit?’ and ‘How does the universe work?’ The arts give us the beginning vocabularies to answer those questions. And that’s why they are so vital.”

-Caroline Barnhill