Obituaries

Theodore Weesner, 79; former Emerson College professor

Mr. Weesner drew on his difficult childhood for such novels as “The Car Thief.’’
Mr. Weesner drew on his difficult childhood for such novels as “The Car Thief.’’

In the opening pages of his 1972 novel “The Car Thief,” Theodore Weesner offers this image: “The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.”

The young thief of the title was also a version of the author, whose upbringing could have been a prelude to a penitentiary. Instead, Mr. Weesner’s youth provided material for some of his best writing and spurred empathy in him for the kinds of characters who, as in life, are often overlooked in serious fiction. “They’re not heroes,” the writer Stewart O’Nan said. “They’re not really antiheroes, either. They’re kind of off to the side.”

Like the often autobiographical Alex, stealing car after car without knowing why, Mr. Weesner’s fictional creations live outside the circle of light, aching for what is always beyond their reach. “He’s got this wonderful sense of the yearning in his characters,” O’Nan said. “His characters want more, and that ‘more’ has been denied for so long.”

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Unlike them, Mr. Weesner wrested himself from a childhood that included juvenile crime, the suicide of one parent, and abandonment by the other. For many years he taught at universities including Emerson College, where he headed the writing program, and his books drew fierce admiration from peers, though sales lagged.

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Composing sentences was a salvation for Mr. Weesner, who wrote every day – every holiday and every birthday – with unconstrained fidelity. He was 79 when he died of congestive heart failure June 25 in Portsmouth Regional Hospital in Portsmouth, N.H., where he had lived for many years.

In 1972, Globe critic Margaret Manning praised “The Car Thief,” calling it “a poignant and beautifully written novel, so true and so excruciatingly painful that one can’t read it without feeling the knife’s cruel blade in the heart.”

As Alex drove that 14th stolen car, Mr. Weesner wrote, “the pressure kept growing until he felt it in his jaws, and he began losing his strength of grip on the steering wheel. His stomach was drawing tighter. It was a pressure, an anguish, which had overtaken him before, but he did not think of that, nor very clearly of anything. He closed his eyes against the feeling and opened them. His jaws felt chilled. He removed his foot from the accelerator, and as the sensation was seizing him, he slammed his palms against the steering wheel, jarring it, as if a violent striking there might cancel an explosion elsewhere. No explosion came.”

Mr. Weesner’s other books included “A German Affair” and “Novemberfest,” both drawing from his Army experiences serving in Germany, and the collection “Children’s Hearts,” in which Alex reappears, this time in short stories. In 1987, Mr. Weesner published “The True Detective,” set in Portsmouth, which recounts the story of a boy who is kidnapped, assaulted, and killed.

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Such grim material in Mr. Weesner’s hands became “a gorgeous and lovely book,” O’Nan said. “There’s not too, too many of those. It’s a book that is that good, that makes a discerning reader say, ‘Wow, this is great, great work.’ I’ve always been on this campaign to get more people to read it.”

Born in Flint, Mich., Theodore W. Weesner was 1 when his mother walked out. She had been 15 when her first child was born, he said in an interview with thepenmuse.net, and went on to “a life devoted to drinking, dancing, and honky-tonking,” never returning to visit. For a time their father, who worked in car factories, parked Mr. Weesner and his brother Jack, who was two years older, in a makeshift foster home run by a “550-pound immobile woman.” Of that childhood interlude, Mr. Weesner said: “I recall nothing but happiness, exploration, adventure.”

His father remarried, took the boys back, and then separated from his wife. “As loving as he usually was, he was a hopeless alcoholic already fixed on suicide as a way to escape a life he knew to have been an abject failure,” said Mr. Weesner, who was 16 when he returned home from school to find his father had shot himself in the chest, the rifle next to him.

When he revisited his youth in fiction, his father was “this kind of gentle, tortured soul,” said his wife, Janet Schofield. “He and Ted had a very close relationship. I think it speaks to Ted’s strength, too, that he can look back on that relationship and appreciate it and feel warmth.”

And although his childhood was there on the page, “he didn’t talk about his past much at all,” said his daughter, Anna of Philadelphia. “I think he wanted to shield us from the difficulties of his past.”

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“It was never about blame for him, it was more about looking at the big picture,” she added. “I think his big gift was finding sympathy in these unsympathetic characters. He did that in his books and he did that in life, too.”

Mr. Weesner was kicked out of high school and then “began to become an overachiever,” he told thepenmuse.net. He finished a general equivalency diploma and joined the Army. Afterward, he used the GI Bill and scholarships to finish Michigan State University before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His father’s suicide, he said, “set me free in a surprising way to become an adult.”

In 1967 he started teaching at the University of New Hampshire, leaving a decade later to write full time. Then he taught in Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Emerson, where he stayed from 1988 to 1996, chaired the Writing, Literature & Publishing program, and created a course in writing a first novel. “When I walk and drive through New England now, should I choose to listen to a breeze or to the rustle of leaves, I hear voices saying, among other things, they’re pleased to see me back and they have a couple of things they think I’d like to know,” he wrote in an autobiographical note for his novel “Novemberfest.”

Mr. Weesner’s marriage to Sharon Lee Long, with whom he had three children, ended in divorce. He married Schofield in 1998.

“Despite the deprivation of his early life, there was an affection that was always there,” said his son Ted Jr. of Wayland.

Mr. Weesner was a devoted and affectionate father, spouse, and friend, his wife and children said. Encounters invariably included a hug and a kiss. “It was a learned behavior,” said his other son, Steven of Lee, N.H., “and was very much a part of him.”

In addition to his wife, two sons, and daughter, Mr. Weesner leaves a sister, Collette Auten of Flint, Mich.; a brother, Gerald of North Carolina; and five grandsons. At Mr. Weesner’s request there will be no service.

Though Mr. Weesner was an admired teacher and colleague, “when he left Emerson he didn’t want a goodbye party and he didn’t want emeritus status,” said John Skoyles, who succeeded Mr. Weesner in leading the Writing, Literature & Publishing program. “He went up to New Hampshire to do his work. He didn’t need the trappings of the academy to bolster his sense of self.”

Writing was always the center of Mr. Weesner’s life. Ted Jr., who also is a writer, said “there was a kind of urgency that was always there in his writing life in a beautiful and committed way. He was one of those writers who had to do it. It wasn’t a choice. He would have gone crazy otherwise.”

In an interview at nyxbookreviews.com, Mr. Weesner said what he liked best about writing “is that it keeps accompanying me along every last road, lighting the way with smiles and fond feelings. What more could a person ask of the precious old craft?”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard @globe.com.