Five Minutes with Len Elman '52
SU alumnus fosters 'community' through endowed writer fund
Leonard S. Elman ’52 endowed a visiting writer fund in The College of Arts and Sciences to honor the memory of his brother, Richard ‘55. Rob Enslin recently caught up with Leonard—a retired New York City attorney and charter member of The College’s Board of Visitors—to discuss the creative writing program and the importance of giving back.
How did you become interested in the creative writing program?
My brother, Richard, graduated from Syracuse University three years after I did. When the Hall of Languages was renovated in 1979, I made a donation to the library in the English department in honor of him and my parents. I think it was the first time I dealt with the English department, which is home to the creative writing program.
After my brother's death in 1997, my wife, Elise ['52], and I established the Richard Elman Fund, which is part of the Raymond Carver Reading Series. Every year, the fund enables a distinguished author to serve a two-day residency at SU.
I should add that I’ve always liked writers, although I’ve never been involved with them, professionally. So in memory of my brother, we were able to raise approximately $100,000—some of it from friends and colleagues of his--to get the Elman Fund going. I’ve since gotten to know several people on our creative writing faculty, including Christopher Kennedy [G’88], Mary Karr, and George Saunders [G’88].
Why is the creative process—and by extension, the liberal arts--important? I imagine it’s made you a better lawyer.
The liberal arts contribute to your general education and well-being, your culture. They also add to the quality of your personal life. I may not be a professional writer, but I’m a professional reader.
How would you characterize our creative writing program?
It’s unique. The quality of students we attract, the results they get while they’re here, the careers they go on to—the program is amazing. … I mean, George Saunders went here.
And Chris Kennedy and Brooks Haxton [G’81], to name a few other SU professors.
Right. And we accept only a dozen students a year out of 600 to 700 applicants. The program is highly selective, and the faculty work very, very closely with the students. For instance, Mary Karr is a celebrated author who’s also deeply involved with the program. The faculty is here not just to write but to teach.
Talk about the Raymond Carver Series.
Several months ago, I had lunch with Mary Karr and alumni Rick Dobbis [‘70] and Eric Gleason [‘05]. She talked to us about the Carver Series—how special it was and how having a firm financial foundation could allow the series to continue to attract name writers. We agreed with her.
For example, the first Richard Elman Visiting Writer was none other than Nick Delbanco, an award-winning author and a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan. He also was my brother’s closest friend. ... Last year's Elman Writer was novelist Ben Marcus [associate professor of writing at Columbia University]. This year's is Dean Young, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
How do you think your gift impacts others?
I recently had this conversation with Jane Werner Present ’56 [noted philanthropist and SU Arents Award recipient]. We discussed how giving helps to build lasting relationships. Once you have a sense of community—people who share common beliefs and values—the money follows.
I mean, I support the creative writing program in memory of my brother. But I’ve come to realize that what’s good for one program is ultimately good for the entire college.
And in today’s marketplace, our students, regardless of their major, need all the help they can get.
Absolutely. It’s competitive out there, so the humanities and social sciences—what I primarily studied to become a lawyer—are of critical importance. So are the natural sciences. Students need to be exposed to all these disciplines to land a good job or to get into a top-ranked graduate school.
Don’t ever forget that these disciplines help you enjoy life. I still have interests, such as literature, that I developed at SU. Even in retirement, they keep me going. And that’s priceless.
For more information about the creative writing program, click here.