Program Director Anne Evans authored this tribute. 

Jack Leggett at the Napa Valley Writers' Conference
Jack Leggett at the 2014 conference. (Photo by Mary Shea)

John Leggett, or Jack as we all knew him, was co-founder and Program Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference from 1987 until his passing last Sunday at age 97.

Jack loved to tell the story of meeting Dave Evans at the Napa Post Office in 1987, manuscripts in hand, ready to send to publishers. Dave was a poet and teacher at Napa Valley College, and he had recently founded the Napa Valley Poetry Conference. Jack himself had recently retired to Napa after serving as the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for eighteen years. Before leaving the Post Office that day, these two gregarious and forwarding-thinking men agreed to add a week of fiction to the poetry conference and to run it together.

Dave Evans died only a year later, but Jack lived on to lead and guide the Conference for 28 years. Because of his career at Iowa he was able to attract renowned authors to Napa. Many, like Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, and Michelle Huneven, had also been his students. As Program Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Jack nurtured more than a generation of aspiring writers, kept our standards high, and our focus on craft and fellowship steady.

In the early years, Jack hosted a picnic for conferees at his home high in the hills above Napa. We lounged on a hillside under oak trees, enjoying ourselves until long after dark while overtaxing his fragile septic and water systems. Eventually, the Conference picnic was moved to a more suitable site, but one fixture remained the same. Every year, including last summer, Jack and his wife hosted the welcome lunch for faculty and staff.   His conviviality and warmth, his gracious ear and open heart, continued to set the tone for our entire endeavor.

In fact, Jack often opened the conference by giving a short speech we called “Jack’s charge.” It was our call-to-arms for the week, and it never failed to rouse and comfort. Although Jack continued to attend conference events since then, he issued his last charge several years ago. On that day, he told us he considered himself fortunate to have chosen to be a writer; that it no longer mattered to him whether the work found a wide audience or not. What mattered was that writing allowed him to live in his imagination, and that was the most precious gift a person could have.

As the news of his passing has spread, many have written to say that he was a mentor, and even a father figure. He remained, for us in the conference community, a source of deep inspiration and abiding wisdom. We will do our best to keep his spirit alive.