By Allison Campbell-Jensen
In April, James “Jim” Lenfestey was named the 2020 recipient of the Kay Sexton Award presented by the Minnesota Book Awards “in recognition of longstanding dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading, and literary activity in Minnesota.”
Among his many accomplishments, Lenfestey is a former Star Tribune editorial writer where he won several Page One Awards for excellence, he is the author of 13 books, chaired the board of Minnesota Center for Book Arts, served on the Loft board, for 15 years chaired Literary Witnesses, and served on the board of Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries from 2013-2019, where he continues on the events committee.
Lenfestey joins an esteemed group of past Kay Sexton honorees, many with U of M connections, including:
- “bibliophilanthropist” Elmer L. Andersen, the late Minnesota governor for whom our Archives & Special Collections building is named;
- former Kerlan Collection Curator Karen Nelson Hoyle;
- John “Jack” Parker, former curator of the James Ford Bell Library; and
- Lou Bellamy, former U professor who donated his Penumbra Theatre Company records and rare book collection to the U.
Companions along the way
Lenfestey joined this list of distinguished award winners because of the company he gathers and assists among local book lovers.
Celebrating his abundant literary enthusiasm, Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries Immediate Past Chair Margaret Telfer wrote: “He is genuinely thrilled to see everyone, to welcome people, to hear their work, to buy a book, to share the joy.”
Leading the effort to land the Robert Bly Papers
Lenfestey came to the attention of the Friends in 2007 when he agreed to chair the campaign to raise the funds for the University Libraries to purchase the archive of iconic Minnesota poet Robert Bly. The financial appraisal was $770,000, but the historical appraisal, Lenfestey says, was “priceless.”
Bly’s papers had been scrupulously saved, organized, and maintained over nearly 60 years of literary life. The U of M Libraries had the papers carefully appraised by John W. Wronski of Brookline, Mass., a leading authority in the field.
“[B]y any account among the most important living American poets, [Bly] can lay claim to an importance as a cultural figure, social leader, public critic, proselytizer for culture and moral force that few, if any, other authors of his time can equal,” Wronski wrote, adding: “[T]he archive of Robert Bly is among the most extensive and complete that we have encountered or of which we are aware for an author of his generation (or a subsequent generation).”
Lenfestey’s close friend Rob Rulon-Miller, a leading national antiquarian bookseller based in St. Paul, told him the archive would be prized around the country but it “belonged in Minnesota.” Lenfestey recruited fellow Bly admirer Harold Shapiro, a New York-based businessman and philanthropist, as co-chair, and — with significant gifts from Garrison Keillor and Doors drummer John Densmore among the long list of donors — the campaign succeeded.
In celebration, in 2009 Lenfestey, with Friends of the Libraries staff, organized an international conference on Bly and his work at the university, to wide press coverage. He co-edited the subsequent scholarly volume, Robert Bly in This World, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011.
Connecting with Friends
Serving with Lenfestey on the Friends of the Libraries Board and events committee has been rewarding for Peg Guilfoyle.
“Any meeting — a committee meeting, a board meeting, a casual brainstorm — is improved by the presence of Jim at the table,” she says, “because he is both wise and generous. “And,” she adds, “he’s able to see short range and long range at the same time.”
Here are some of the ways his service to the Friends continued after the Bly archive acquisition.
The first Pankake Poetry Series poet
In 2010, Lenfestey was chosen as the first poet in the new Friends of the Libraries’ Pankake Poetry Series, in which he introduced the audience to T’ang dynasty poet Han-Shan (Cold Mountain) and told the story of his newest book, Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain.
Lenfestey later assisted the Pankake program committee in selecting subsequent readers for the series, such as Michael Dennis Browne, emeritus professor of Creative Writing, the late Louis Jenkins, Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen, spoken word artist and writer Bao Phi, and poets Jim Moore and Wang Ping.
Bringing Elizabeth Kolbert to the U of M
While serving on the event committee, Lenfestey suggested as speaker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize—winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
“But she had a significant fee that I thought would be a nonstarter,” said Lenfestey.
He praised Wendy Lougee, then the Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, and the determined and creative Friends staff who built a broad consortium of U department sponsors. Kolbert’s talk about the human threat to Earth’s diversity drew more than 2,000 people to Northrop Auditorium.
Lenfestey credits Friends, Libraries staff
In these activities and more, Lenfestey says the U of M Libraries and Friends of the Libraries’ staff are “the ones who do all the work.”
“Lanaya Stangret, Linda Greve, Kris Kiesling , Kathy McGill (retired) and recently retired Dean of Libraries Wendy Lougee — all are amazing!” he says. “They are visionary believers in the important mission of the University Libraries and its extraordinary special collections. They inspire me and everyone around them.”
Lenfestey himself was praised by Minnesota literary guiding stars in nomination letters for the Kay Sexton Award.
- Lenfestey serves on the board of the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Arts in Red Wing with Fiona McCrae, Director & Publisher of Graywolf Press, who wrote, “his capacious energy is having a transformative effect,” as the arts center prepares to celebrate 25 years.
- Eric Lorber, of Rain Taxi, cited among Lenfestey’s accomplishments his organizing of the remarkable series of events under the rubric ”Poets, Writers, and Musicians against the War on the Earth.”
- Daniel Slager, Publisher & CEO of Milkweed Editions, credited Lenfestey as one of the visionaries behind Open Book, a literary and book arts center Slager calls “an unparalleled public asset.”
Much like Jim Lenfestey is, really.