In 1994, former DePauw professors of English Peter Graham and Lili Wright found themselves in a small town in central Mexico, doing two of the things they love: traveling and writing.
The travelers were unaware of the others’ existence until Graham spotted Wright on the street of San Miguel de Allende, asking her out on a date. She stood him up.
Three years later, Wright just so happened to take a seat next to Graham in a nonfiction writing class at Columbia in New York City. Not recognizing her from the street corner in Mexico, Graham invited her to dinner once again.
Despite the fact that she blew him off for a second time, Graham and Wright married in 1999, the summer before they began teaching at DePauw.
“So much of one’s life depends on chance encounters and random moments and things over which we have no control. Good and bad,” Wright said. “This is demoralizing and freeing and extraordinary, all at the same time.”
This unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of life that Wright speaks of has once again been a defining aspect of the pair’s life in the past year.
In the spring of 2020, the now-emeriti professors chose to take the early retirement buy-out from DePauw. After departing from the university, the couple had plans to travel and write, the pursuits that brought the two of them together years ago.
With the start of the pandemic and the beginning of this new chapter timing up almost perfectly, Wright and Graham were forced to re-imagine what life after DePauw would be like. Nonetheless, they took these unforeseen circumstances and used them as a catalyst for this next phase.
“Who knew what was coming?” Wright asked. “No one.”
Graham never planned to be a teacher and Wright wasn’t originally planning to leave DePauw. However, after 20 years of teaching English, the offer from DePauw had them dreaming of more time to write and travel.
While Graham said COVID-19 was great for his writing, it obviously wasn’t ideal for travel. Because they still have two kids in school, they didn’t have immediate plans for “super-ambitious world traveling.” Yet they were still able to make their way to Maine for the summer, with Graham calling it “the perfect place to spend several months of the pandemic, since it’s beautiful and rural.”
While most of their travel got put on hold, writing didn’t. Currently, they both have their plates full with a variety of projects, drawing on aspects of the pandemic for some of their work.
Graham wrote a long essay on death and dying, focused on the passing of his grandfather. While COVID-19 isn’t specifically mentioned in the essay, Graham said, “the pandemic was what really powered it.”
On a lighter note, Wright completed a profile for Indianapolis Monthly on Zoe Laverne, an Indiana resident who found fame on TikTok, the app that gained its immense popularity during quarantine.
Wright has written for Indianapolis Monthly for several years, leading her to winning two state awards in 2020 from the Society of Professional Journalists, which was founded at DePauw in 1909. In 2019, she wrote a piece about “DePauw’s Big Mess on Campus” for the magazine.
This past year also allowed the two of them to re-visit and continue working on pieces that have been in the works for some time. Wright is in the midst of a novel about a “mystery, travel, spiritual journey,” while Graham works on a memoir about growing up on the North Shore of Chicago as well as a biography on an 18th-century Boston man who fought in both the American and French revolutions.
Wright is also teaching a nonfiction workshop at Butler University in the MFA graduate program and judged the nonfiction prize this year for the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which DePauw is a part of.
DePauw is still on their minds as the one-year anniversary of their final semester approaches. The both of them miss the community of the classroom and their students, but Wright has settled into her new routines and Graham is happy to be free from academia.
One of Graham’s former students, junior Louise Gallup, misses his welcoming spirit in the English department, saying she grew more as a writer during the semester that she took his class than ever before.
“He pushes his students to step out of the ordinary even if it feels strange at first,” Gallup said. “‘It’s not weird, it’s captivating’ he told me.”
Junior Kellen Bachler attributes developing his passion for English to Wright. After having Wright as his first-year advisor and professor for several classes, Bachler said, “I carry many of her lessons with me.”
The biggest takeaway that senior Maria Herrera took from her time with Wright was that “persistence is key.” Both Wright and Graham show persistence with their continued dedication to their passions of traveling and writing, whether they’re on the streets of Mexico, in a DePauw classroom, or in the comfort of their home.