Award-Winning Novelist Robert Bausch

Three-Time Mason Alum Dies at 73

by William Miller, Former Director, Creative Writing

Award-Winning Novelist Robert Bausch

Robert Bausch, a three-time Mason alum and award-winning novelist who became well known and highly respected as a writer and teacher, influencing hundreds of young writers, and also as a friend and colleague to writers at Mason and throughout the region, died October 9 of multiple myeloma at a hospital in Fredericksburg, VA. He was 73.

“Bob Bausch was so significant to us in the Mason creative writing program,” said Gregg Wilhelm, Mason’s director of creative writing. “He and his twin brother Richard helped start the journal Phoebe back when they were students here, and he sent so many great students to us from his classes at NOVA and community workshops he taught around the region.”

A national tribute to Bob will take place at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday evening, March 28, 2019, at a venue in the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Both Bob and Richard were frequent participants at AWP conferences.

The Bausch brothers came to Mason after stints in the Air Force and as students at NOVA. Bob earned his BA in 1974, then his MA in 1975. He earned his MFA in 2001, when he was well into a lengthy career teaching at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College. He also periodically taught at Mason, Johns Hopkins University, American University, and the University of Virginia. Bob’s awards include a statewide teaching award in 2013 and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature from Longwood University, awarded in 2009, for his body of work. He also received the Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers for his sustained achievement as a writer.

Colleague, Teacher, Mentor

Roger Lathbury, who joined the Mason faculty in 1973, recalled the way others already at Mason “were all marveling at the Bausch brothers when they were students—their talent for writing, their sparkling enthusiasm, their acuity in lit classes. Before they had graduated, they were fixtures. I remember playing guitar with Dick and listening to Lorraine (Brown, a professor) weigh which brother was going to shine more brightly. What eventually occurred, that they both were stars, seemed too extraordinary to be possible.

“Both Bob and Dick adored anecdotes and jokes and were always ready to laugh. Dick published a book first, but Bob followed shortly after. The two of them would, even though they were geographically separated, get together and give readings and talks at Mason,” Lathbury said.

Steve Goodwin, a Mason faculty member, knew Bob both personally and professionally. They were neighbors in recent years and had dinner together, often discussing the work they were both called to do.

“Bob was definitely one of our earliest and most illustrious graduates,” Steve said. “I met him in 1982, when Dick was teaching at Mason and he and I went out after class and met Bob” at a restaurant near the Mason campus. “Bob was teaching a grueling schedule at NOVA and talked about trying to get his writing done while teaching that much.”

Yet, Bob did get the work done. His publications appeared fairly regularly: On the Way Home (1982), The Lives of Riley Chance (1983) Almighty Me (1991), A Hole in the Earth (2000), Gypsy Man (2002), Out of Season ((2005), Far as the Eye Can See (2014), The Legend of Jesse Smoke (2016), and In the Fall They Come Back (2017). He had recently completed work on a sequel to Far As the Eye Can See, said Richard.

Part of what made him so successful, said Goodwin, was his being a natural storyteller. “He was always telling long, involved stories. He had a repertoire of them. Elaborate performance pieces are what they were. Over the years, I heard various versions, where he would change this detail or that, but they always came to the same hilarious end. He was a storyteller. He could just tell the stories without losing people.

“And he was always such a great member of the local writing community. Kind of a free agent," Goodwin recalled. "Teaching at NOVA but then offering workshops, even running them out of his home. He had a series he would do where he brought students to his home on Sunday evenings. He was a definite connector of people."

Tricia Gonzales, a third-year MFA student at Mason, previously worked with Bob at the Writer's Center in Bethesda where she explored her potential as a writer as she weighed whether to commit to something as long and arduous as a terminal degree program. She said, “Bob was wise and kind and generous with his praise to all his students but he was always, always genuine.

“He told us, his students, that our talents are gifts that we should care for, nurture, and honor. I haven’t always been good at that advice, but Bob led by example so even if I wasn’t good at practicing it, I know what it looked like. He showed us what a writer’s life is like; not just craft related stuff but also how to get through the tough stuff, like rejections or stalled progress on stories.”

Ellen Weeren, another third-year student in Mason’s program, also met Bob at the Bethesda Writer's Center. She said, “Bob was a magician—not just with his own words but with the words of others. He could create confidence out of thin air. He was generous and kind, gracious and hilarious. Bob advised his students (who often became his friends) to write their way to the end. Because how else could you find out how something would turn out."

Ellen said that Bob warned his students against getting stuck in the nagging beginning or sagging middle. "'Just keep writing,' he'd say, 'it will take you where you need to go.'"

According to Ellen, quitting was never an option for Bausch or his students. “Bob became like a big brother to so many of us,” she said. “Protective and fierce, gentle and loving, a guiding light, a rainbow in a storm.”

Caitlin Cushman, another former student of Bob’s at the Writer’s Center, recalled taking a workshop with him and discussing form, “and Bob let slip that he did not care for flash fiction. 'How could you convey a full story in so few words? It would be a vignette at best, not a story.'

Nevertheless, according to Caitlin, Bob's comments on her flash-fiction stories were thoughtful, full of admiration, and without a shade of cynicism or ego. He was gracious. He was grateful. For the rest of his life, Bob consistently told her and anyone else who would listen that "young students taught an old man about flash fiction—about how powerful it could be and the stories it could tell.”

Jen Haupt also worked with Bob at the Bethesda center ten years after earning her MFA at the University of Virginia and taking “enough conferences and workshops around the country to recognize a master teacher when I found one.” So when Bob was nominated for a statewide teaching award, she enlisted to support his winning it, writing an endorsement letter giving ten reasons why. She praised his abilities to explain the craft of fiction and how good fiction works in the minds of readers and, so, how writers need to craft their work. She called him “high-minded” and noted that he always said writing could be taught, which meant that a writer always could learn to write better if the writer wanted to do so. But for all of that, she wrote, he was kind, humble, and quick to celebrate the accomplishments of his students.

Only Twin Act in American Letters

Richard Bausch used to say he and Bob were the only twin act in American letters. And when cloning was debated in the 1980s, he said he had a clone because he had an identical twin brother, and then he would opine about having someone so much like himself and yet also a separate person altogether. Richard, who earned his MFA from Iowa’s graduate writing program after getting his bachelor’s from Mason, returned to Mason to teach for numerous years in the creative writing program. He now teaches at Chapman University in California.

“Here, losing Bobby, there's just the pain, now,” Richard said. “I’ve been saying his suffering is over, and ours is only beginning, and I’m fairly well incapacitated for much of anything but stupefied horror and disbelief. He was a teacher whose methods and attitudes I took from liberally and without attribution, for decades, the best teacher I ever saw. He thought about his students when he was far from them, and his involvement in their lives was inspiring to see.”

Richard concluded: “In the hospital, suffering from the several fractures in his spine because of the myeloma, he was looking at student work.”

Plans to celebrate Bob Bausch's life and literature at an event in Northern Virginia are still being finalized.

Credit: Bausch photo, Northern Virginia Magazine