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William C. Edinger, a poetry and literature professor and founder of UMBC’s English Honors Program, dies

William C. Edinger was an accomplished jazz pianist and fly fisherman.
William C. Edinger was an accomplished jazz pianist and fly fisherman.

William C. Edinger, a professor and specialist in poetry and 18th century literature who was a founder of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s English Honors Program and was a jazz and classical music aficionado, died of complications of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis June 19 at his Tuscany-Canterbury home. He was 79.

“Bill Edinger was a strong voice for the humanities at UMBC,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been UMBC president since 1992. “He taught a wide range of courses from British literature to poetry. He managed to bring literature to life and students loved talking about the experiences they had in his classes.”

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Wallace C. Shugg, who taught English at UMBC from 1967 until he retired in 1992, was not only a colleague but also a close friend.

“Bill was an excellent writer and a meticulous scholar,” Professor Shugg said. “He was also an accomplished jazz pianist and played with Cal Tjader on the West Coast. He was agreeable and the ideal faculty member. His death is a great loss.”

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William Carter Edinger, son of Carter Edinger, a construction materials salesman, and his wife, Marion Bresnahan, a secretary, was born in San Francisco and raised in Burlingame, California. He graduated in 1959 from Burlingame High School, where he had been an outstanding hurdler on the school’s track and field team.

“Bill played a ‘way out’ piano for the Mastertones, a jazz quartet, and also excelled in creative writing and the ability to use the English language .... The inside of a cabaret or classroom will be Bill’s future habitat,” according to the entry in his senior yearbook.

Professor Edinger was a 1963 magna cum laude honors graduate from Stanford University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He obtained a master’s degree in 1964 in English and his Ph.D., also in the discipline, both from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

From 1964 to 1968, Professor Edinger was a graduate fellow and teaching assistant at Wisconsin and an assistant professor in English at the University of California at Los Angeles, and was a Mellon Faculty Fellow in humanities at Harvard University from 1977 to 1978.

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Professor Edinger joined the UMBC faculty in 1978 as an associate professor of English where he continued teaching until retiring in 2008.

“And most important, Bill came to UMBC in the early years and helped build the UMBC’s strong academic foundation,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “Even in his retirement, he could be seen on campus where he was still supporting and talking about the humanities.”

Professor Edinger was described by Dr. Hrabowski as being “very even and humble.”

“He was a man who had a smile of encouragement for all. He helped elevate all of us and he was the one you went to when you wanted to understand the significance of what we’re doing,” he said. “Bill was selfless and always cared about other people. It was never about him, it was about the students and UMBC. That was Bill Edinger.”

Professor Edinger’s major scholarly interests were Samuel Johnson, 18th century literature, and literary theory from Plato to the Romantic period.

He was a founder of the English Department’s Honors Program, which he directed for 17 years.

“He gave more hours to the honor students than anyone else,” Professor Shugg said.

Orianne Smith joined the English faculty at UMBC in 2005.

“I was the junior faculty member who looked up to him and when I came to UMBC, he welcomed me warmly,” said Professor Smith, a Romanticist who also taught 18th century literature.

“He was the kind of exemplary professor you thought that a professor should be. He was genteel, erudite, dressed well and was really a warm guy,” Professor Smith said. “And the students just gravitated to him.”

Jessica McCarthy, a former student wrote, “His kindness, honesty and irreverence were gifts that helped me believe in my own intellect.”

“He was a true ‘humanist,’ with a deep curiosity about people and their life experiences, and he applied his intellect to everything from the most trivial gardening question to his enduring study of Samuel Johnson,” his wife, the former Sara Carlton, who met her future husband when both attended the same freshman English class at Stanford, wrote in a biographical profile.

“That is what made him such a gifted educator; he taught what it means to be truly interested in something by his thorough, detailed understanding of each subject he approached.”

Professor Edinger was the author of numerous scholarly articles and reviews and two published monographs, “Samuel Johnson and Poetic Style” and “Johnson and Detailed Representation: The Significance of the Classical Sources.” He was also the editor for “The Honors College Review: A Journal of Ideas,” and was a reader and manuscript editor for “Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.”

Outside the classroom, Professor Edinger was a serious fly fisherman who liked backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada and playing classical music and jazz piano.

“Boy, did he have an ear for jazz,” Professor Shugg said. “I remember he’d play in an empty classroom at UMBC with the door closed, but it was really good stuff. He was one of the great ones.”

Ms. Edinger said her husband was 7 years old when he began fly-fishing with his father in Montana, and as he aged began suffering from painful knees that caused him to fall while wading in the Patapsco River. He kept looking for a fishing spot he could manage, his wife said, and found it in Stoney Run, where he found some trout and would visit them occasionally to check on their welfare.

In all things, Professor Edinger brought the same level of enthusiasm not only to his teaching, fishing and piano playing, but also to the “pursuit of a squirrel-proof bird feeder,” his wife said.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife of 57 years, a former USF&G technical writer, he is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Edinger of North Hollywood, California, and Anne Reddy of Brooklyn, New York; and three grandchildren.

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