Alumni Angle: Virginia Allen ‘64

Virginia Allen ’64 is an accomplished writer and the embodiment of the “multi-interested” Lawrence student. When Allen first arrived on campus, drawn by what she described as Lawrence’s “informal friendliness,” she expected to go into theater due to her involvement in several productions.

However, Allen’s course in life was changed by the encouragement of one of her theater professors. “David Mayer, of the drama department, talked me into majoring in English. He was right. I guess he saw in me other aspects of life. I was also doing a lot of writing. I’ve always been grateful to him,” Allen reflected.

While completing the English major at Lawrence, Allen continued her theatrical pursuits and explored musical interests as well. Along with playing violin in the orchestra and little symphony, Allen, inspired by the release of Joan Baez’s first album, began to play the guitar. “I bought a little Gibson and learned all the Child ballads I could, and was quite an active folk singer alone and in groups until I graduated,” said Allen.

Allen’s writing career got off to a promising start as well when she was awarded the Hicks Prize in Fiction and as she served on the board to the Contributor, a literary magazine.

Allen had a colorful assortment of careers and experiences after graduating from Lawrence. Allen moved to New York and continued to study theater at an acting school while putting her many talents to use.

“After two years of typing, going to night classes in acting, dance and voice at the HB Studio and acting in a mime show, I became tired of it all and decided to go back home to Michigan,” Allen said. However, when the writer thought of home, she said, “I imagined our living room, with the fireplace and the New Yorkers on the round table, and I picked up the phone.”

Inspired by the memory of the magazine which had held such prominence in her life, Allen was driven to remain in New York for a little longer. “That call resulted in my working in the office of the New Yorker’s legendary editor, William Shawn, for the next couple of years, and then I really did go back to Michigan and went back to school,” Allen said.

Once in Michigan, Allen acquired her MFA at University of Michigan. While Allen found her time at the University of Michigan to be immensely satisfying, Allen noted, “The sheer hugeness of the place I think would have been bewildering to an undergraduate. By that time, I had been out of school six years. I was immensely grateful for the, by comparison, extremely nurturing experience I had had at Lawrence.”

With several moves, including time in Chicago writing fiction and book reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine and Publishers Weekly, Allen worked for the press for a total of 22 years before settling in Colorado to live with her sister.

There, Allen worked for the Bloomsbury review until it went under in 2013. Allen expressed nostalgia for the days of print, and said, “Everyone is aware that publishing has utterly changed and newspapers are almost, alas-and-alack, no more. I love print, and I love doing New York Times crossword puzzles while holding the ink and paper in my hands.”

However, Allen continues to find inspiration despite the struggles of print in the 21st century. “Even though venues for book reviews have decreased almost to zero except for the handful of greats, I have been pleased to indulge myself in other ways,” Allen said. Allen self-published a novel, “Going to the Club with my Baby,” in 2014, and in 2016 brought out a collection of short fiction called “Cape Wrath and Other Stories.”

Allen is currently working on another short story collection with the title story “My Last Week on Earth.” Allen commented wryly, “The title is apt, anyway. I’m 75.”

Allen remembers Lawrence with great fondness, though she mentioned, “During my senior year all I could think of was escaping the confines of Appleton. And yet my connection with the place is rock-solid.”

Allen now generously contributes to the Lawrence Fund once a year, thanks to a visit in the 90’s which reminded her of her admiration of the university. “I happened to visit campus with a friend, a visiting scholar, in 1998, and I was so impressed that I began contributing,” Allen explained. One of the most important aspects of her time at Lawrence, Allen concluded, was that “friends I knew there remained with me through life.”