Former Alaska Writer Laureate and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Frank Soos died last Wednesday in a solo bike accident in Maine. He was 70 years old.
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Soos was born in 1950 and grew up in the Virginia coal mining town of Pocahontas. His parents owned a market, and that upbringing taught Soos and his brother the value of hard work and community. Soos never lost his regional drawl nor his self-deflecting courtesy. While his literary interests sparked in high school, they took flame at Davidson College.
“Davidson sort of looked like this dream,” Soos said in 2019. “There were all these guys sitting under trees reading books and talking. I thought, wow, if this is college, I can do this.”
At Davidson, Soos would meet his lasting friend and sometime collaborator, the art historian and painter Kesler Woodward. After college, Soos taught high school for a time and discovered he loved it, but the writing life beckoned and he entered University of Arkansas’ Creative Writing program, graduating with an MFA. Soos said grad school was instructive in unexpected ways.
“It was an awful program,” he said. “It was intentionally cruel, and I made up my mind I would never participate in a program like that if I were a teacher.”
Those lessons found expression when he joined the University of Alaska Fairbanks English Department in 1986. There he met poet Peggy Shumaker and together helped forge a creative writing program that attracted writers from across the country and formed a new generation of noted Alaska authors.
“We had graduate students who would come to see me and I would say, ‘Here’s where you can compress,’” said Shumaker. “And then they’d go see Frank and Frank would say ‘Well, maybe this is a place where you can make it longer.’ And I’m sure we bewildered a lot of students at first, but believe it or not, it worked.”
Shumaker said Soos was the most generous teacher she’d ever met.
“You learn when you’re a teacher that if you’re going to make demands on students, you’re going to make them on yourself,” Soos said in 2019. “So, to turn that stuff around mean you sit at your desk and read a lot of papers and make a lot of comments to get ready for all these conferences. That’s what teaching is.”
That commitment to hard work extended to his writing. Shumaker says besides his elegantly crafted sentences and uncanny ear for dialogue, Soos kept writing no matter what.
“He worked for decades with very little recognition, and then suddenly he had two books at once,” she said. “And he was characteristically modest. But what he did always, in good times and bad, he kept plugging away.”
That tenacity resulted in Soos winning the Flannery Connor award in 1998 and serving as Alaska Writer Laureate in 2014. A posthumous collection of Soos’ stories is scheduled to be published in 2023.
While Soos always claimed he was a loner, he managed to form a series of creative collaborations — with Shumaker and painter Woodward and most intimately with his wife and artist Margo Klass. He is also inescapably linked to Fairbanks’ biking and skiing clubs. Long-time friend and fellow Nordic skier Susan Sugai said if Soos wasn’t participating in races like the 50K Sonot Kkaazoot, he was volunteering handing out bibs or timing races.
“He knew that times are important to people,” she said. “It’s not the people who necessarily win, it’s the people who participate and try to improve. He loved that.”