Professor sparks student’s passion, lifelong correspondence ensues

The Bible’s poetry is meant to inspire the soul, but for one would-be minister, the words of an NMSU poetry professor led him beyond being a minister of education to life as a poet laureate.

Terry Lucas ’74 enrolled at NMSU in 1969 with a plan to enter seminary after graduation. He pursued a degree in philosophy but lacked enough English credits to graduate.

Terry Lucas (left) and his partner, Janet Goodman, read letters in Keith Wilson’s papers in the NMSU Library. Wilson was a poetry professor at NMSU. The materials included Lucas’ first letter to Wilson, which started a 25-year exchange.

“The only class still open that fit into my work schedule was world poetry, taught by Keith Wilson. ‘You’re not going to like it,’ my adviser warned me. I didn’t particularly like poetry and never had enjoyed reading dead authors who spoke what I thought was a different language,” Lucas says. “However, in the end, he couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Lucas and Wilson developed a strong bond beyond the classroom.

After discovering his love for poetry, Lucas wanted to change majors, but his parents were against it so he completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then graduated from the seminary in 1976.

Shortly thereafter, he joined the ministry of a West Texas church.

“After three weeks I realized that I didn’t belong in that church, in the ministry or in Texas. A month or two later I reached out to Keith in desperation with a letter, really a call for help.”

It took three months for Wilson to respond. He was moving and had misplaced the letter but answered immediately once he found it, giving Lucas a specific and thoughtful critique of his poems and encouragement to send more.

“This exchange of letters began a lifelong correspondence between the two of us,” says Lucas. “For the next 25 years on and off, I sent Keith poems and questions and he sent back comments and answers and encouragement. His letters gave me the confidence to continue writing, even though I was working full time in retail to support a family after leaving the ministry.”

Wilson also wrote a letter of recommendation that would help Lucas get into the MFA Program at Columbia College Chicago. Before Wilson’s death in 2009, Lucas and his partner, Janet Goodman, were able to visit Wilson and his wife in Las Cruces. Lucas completed his MFA in 2008 and by 2013 was working full time as a poet.

Today as the Poet Laureate for Marin County, Calif., Lucas remembers vividly how Wilson changed his life. While on campus in November 2019 for a poetry reading, Lucas took a tour of the NMSU Library and read through Wilson’s papers, including that first letter Lucas wrote to Wilson, in which a former student’s passion for poetry reached a professor who helped a fledgling talent take flight.

“It has taken me six years to discover that I have to write,” Lucas wrote. “Whatever else it means for my life I do not know, but I do know that I must write.”

Minerva Baumann ’13