Stephen M. Ross, Faulkner expert

Stephen M. Ross, who devoted years to studying novelist William Faulkner and was a retired National Endowment for the Humanities official, died of a stroke Aug. 21 in Philadelphia. The Catonsville resident was 69.

His wife, Carol Kolmerten, said he suffered the stroke on a plane while they were returning from a vacation in Italy. Their plane was diverted and he was taken to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where he died.


Dr. Ross spent years studying "The Sound and the Fury" and helped readers navigate the novel's complicated stream-of-consciousness and changing time frames.

Born in Meadville, Pa., he was the son of Julian Ross, an Allegheny College dean, and Carol Ross, a homemaker.


He earned a degree in English at Allegheny, where he was named to Phi Beta Kappa. He later earned a doctorate from Stanford University. He was attracted to Faulkner as a graduate student and wrote his dissertation on Southern oratory in Faulkner. Although he never practiced law, he was a 1982 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law.

While a young teacher at Purdue University, he met his future wife on the school's tennis courts.

They moved to Maryland and settled in Catonsville, where an old residence caught their eye.

"We bought this big house that needed repairs," said his wife, a Hood College English professor. "It had a big room lined with bookshelves with 13-foot ceilings and a fireplace. Every weeknight for 37 years, we went to our study and worked at our two big desks."

Dr. Ross initially taught English at the Naval Academy and spent a year at the University of Strasbourg in France, where he also taught American literature.

In 1987, he joined the National Endowment for the Humanities and became its deputy director of fellowships and seminars. He was later named director of the Office of Challenge Grants in 1995. His wife said he helped raise nearly $4 billion for the humanities.

In that job, Dr. Ross was chief negotiator for the collective bargaining agreement between the NEH and the American Federation of Government Employees. "His law courses on contract negotiation helped him," his wife said. "People on both sides thought he was eminently fair."

Carole Watson, the acting chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recalled Dr. Ross as the "embodiment of the NEH ethos; a person of high learning, deep scholarship, and professional acumen who handled administrative responsibilities with kindness and aplomb. He was an irrepressible teacher and prolific writer who brought a generosity of spirit to all his undertakings."


Several years ago, Dr. Ross began work on a newly printed edition of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." Working with fellow scholar Noel Polk, he helped create a new printing issued in 2012 by the Folio Society in England.

The book made use of different colored inks to show the 14 time periods in the novel.

In a 2012 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dr. Ross said, "Scholars and readers of Faulkner have never settled on exactly how many different time periods are represented. ... Finding 14 different colored inks proved to be harder than we thought."

The specially printed book was limited to 1,480 copies and initially sold for $345. It quickly sold out and today sells for many times that price.

"We can never know if this is exactly what Faulkner would have envisaged, but the result justifies his belief that coloured inks would allow readers to follow the strands of the novel more easily, without compromising the 'thought-transference' for which he argued so passionately," said a statement issued by the Folio Society in 2012.

Dr. Ross was also the author of "Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner," a 1989 work; "Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-envisioned," written with Dr. Kolmerten and Judith Wittenberg; and "Reading Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, Glossary and Commentary," also written with Dr. Polk.


His wife said her husband enjoyed wine tastings and trips to California wineries. He also played bridge.

A life celebration will be held in October.

In addition to his wife of 37 years, he is survived by a son, Aidan Ross of Portland, Ore.; two daughters, Laura Kolmerten McAfee of Catonsville and Derica Ross Waller of Denver; and four grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Sharon Detrick Ross ended in divorce.