More than 100 friends, family members, colleagues and former students gathered Friday to remember Burton Hatlen, a poet, scholar and mentor who guided generations of literary minds during his 40 years at the University of Maine in Orono.
Hatlen died in January of pneumonia at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor at age 71. He had undergone treatment for prostate cancer during the last decade.
Among those in attendance at Friday’s memorial service at UM’s Newman Center was author Stephen King, who described Hatlen as not really laughing out loud, but rather as having a chuckle down in his throat.
“His smile turned down instead of up, as if you were his conspirator,” King said.
The author said it was impossible to eulogize his mentor.
“It would be like when somebody asks me, ‘Well, what’s your favorite book?'” he said, noting that he can never come up with just one.
“We all, in a way, wanted to be like Burt, because he always saw the potential,” King said.
The first time he visited his professor’s home in Orrington, King said, the experience was breathtaking.
“It was a farmhouse, but it was full of books,” King said. “The cats didn’t have a place to lay down. The books were everywhere.”
It became evident as people spoke about their relationships with Hatlen that his interests in life were varied. His first reading interests were books about hot rods and baseball, but his literary palette advanced with age and Hatlen’s passion for literature, art, music and politics grew.
“He was never too busy for a good conversation,” said Naomi Jacobs, chairwoman of UM’s English department. “I know we will all feel his absence for many, many years to come.”
Hatlen’s work as director of the National Poetry Foundation was noted several times throughout the service, in addition to his dedication to his students and the written word.
“I still think of Burt as a poet first,” said writer Michael Alpert, now director of the University of Maine Press.