Poet laureate got the honor by making fun of Gov. Horner

Pete Sherman

As family members of Illinois’ first poet laureate Howard Austin prepare to donate his materials to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library today, they don’t seem to mind at all that Austin earned the title back in 1936 by simply making fun of Gov. Henry Horner.

One evening that year, Horner had dinner with the Ladies of Sangamon County Democracy. Also present was Austin, a Springfield resident known for writing quick and funny poems and putting them to music with his quartet, the Pawnee Four.

The foursome had arranged a song to present Horner that evening. Among other themes, the song poked fun at the governor’s bachelor status.

“A rose-strewn path, though marred with thorns, / Acquainted well with strife; / If he aspires to greater heights, / He needs must take a wife,” reads part of one stanza that was typical of Austin’s poetic style.

Horner was so amused by the ditty that he announced that evening that Austin deserved recognition as Illinois first poet laureate. A few days after the dinner, Austin received a state certificate documenting the honor.

“He was very happy being designated laureate,” said his son, Dean Austin. “He just loved to express himself with poetry.”

Dean Austin and other family members will be present at a ceremony at 11 a.m. today at the Lincoln Presidential Library that will mark the family’s donation. Included are poems, photographs, letters and a new biography of Austin written by his grandson Roger, who lives in Springfield.

The event coincides with an Illinois poetry exhibit that ends its run at the library this month.

Austin, born in 1886 on the family farm near Blue Mound, died on April 1, 1962, in Springfield. Carl Sandburg had been named the state’s new poet laureate earlier that year.

The only other Illinois poet laureates are Gwendolyn Brooks, who followed Sandburg, and current laureate Kevin Stein, who will participate in today’s ceremony.

Austin was an accountant by trade. He also was a teacher, World War I veteran and chief clerk of the Sangamon County clerk’s office. Many of his poems are sentimental and celebrate family life, faith, patriotism and the passing of time from youth to old age.

Although some have questioned Austin’s literary legitimacy, family members say he never sought recognition as poet.

“He didn’t seek to achieve great worldly fame by writing books,” Dean Austin said. “He wrote a little book for the family way back — that’s in the collection. Very few of them are left. It means an awful lot to me knowing these items of Dad’s are being stored in a very safe environment and for others to learn about, and in the same place associated with Abraham Lincoln.”

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

To learn more about Howard Austin, visit www.howard-austin.org/HBA, the family’s website devoted to his life and works.

Also, the State of Illinois hosts www.poetlaureate.il.gov, a Web site devoted to its laureates. The site includes audio recordings of Austin reading his poetry, including a family favorite, “Till the Kids Come Home.”