About 60 years ago, a young Dick Stahl was sitting in a college literature class when the teacher challenged his students to write a poem in the peculiar rhythm of the Anglo-Saxon verses they were studying.
Stahl put pen to paper and produced a poem that was so good that the teacher — the renowned Roald Tweet, professor emeritus of Augustana College — read it aloud to the class.
In that moment, Stahl realized that in addition to supporting himself as an English teacher, he also could write poetry.
And so he did. Incessantly. Up until the last months of his life.
When Stahl died early Wednesday after a nearly year-long battle with cancer, he left behind more than 1,000 poems, four books and countless people who were inspired by his teaching.
The latter included 34½ years teaching English at Davenport Central High School and two years as the Quad-Cities' first poet laureate, promoting poetry through workshops, readings and talks for Quad-City Arts.
Stahl died at his Davenport home in the same room where he typed his poems on the computer and, through the years, corrected hundreds of theme papers, his wife, Helen, said. He was 80 years old.
His free verse poetry — as well as prose and photography — were about what he found around him, the people, places, events, culture, history and landmarks of the Quad-Cities.
Subjects included the Mississippi River (he loved the river), Bishop's cafeteria, the Davenport sky bridge, the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, the births of his five grandchildren and the building of Lock & Dam 15.
For the 100th season of the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra, Stahl wrote a poem to accompany each of the orchestra's Masterworks concerts. Most recently, his poetry was featured in the orchestra's commissioned "City Speaks" that premiered in April 2019, and several stanzas are painted in a mural on the south side of the symphony office.
"His love for the Quad-Cities was inspiring and his memory will live on in the hearts of Quad-Citizens for years to come," symphony staff wrote on the orchestra's Facebook page.
In 2009, Stahl received an Eddy Award from River Action Inc. in the category of art.
"If the role of poetry is to wake us up, then Dick Stahl has us wide-eyed," Kathy Wine, River Action executive director said in presenting the award.
With a twinkle in his eye and a sense of humor about life, Stahl was interested in lots of things.
He wrote 112 poems, for example, about the building of a new swimming pool and performing arts addition at Central High School. He penned an even 100 poems about the renovation of Augustana's Old Main and the building of the Gerber Center and new football stadium, Helen said.
"No one asked him to do this, he just did it," she said.
He always had small notebooks with him for jotting down ideas, but poems were written on yellow legal pads using a fountain pen with ink of various colors, Helen said.
"He could go to the airport and just sit there and listen to people talk and come up with a poem," she said. "It was amazing where he would pick up an idea."
Stahl was compelled by a desire to express himself and a love of sharing his written words with others, she said.
A specialty was what his former teacher Tweet calls the "occasional" poem, one written for the occasion of someone's birthday or retirement or the dedication of a building. Many poets shy away from this kind of work because writing is difficult and when the "occasion" is over, the piece doesn't have much relevance.
But Stahl gave of his talents unselfishly, writing poems for teachers as they retired from Central, for friends' weddings, for his wife.
John Wetzel, who worked with Stahl on the Quad-Cities' annual Henry Farnam dinners, said he was always was struck with "how meticulous he was with the written word."
"He was always looking to improve, looking to make it one step up," Wetzel said.
The Farnam dinners began in 2004 as a countdown to the re-enactment of the "Grand Excursion" of 1854 in which notables from the East were invited by Henry Farnam — builder of the Rock Island Railroad — to take an excursion down the river from St. Paul to the Quad-Cities to see what the American Midwest was like.
In 2013, Stahl was inducted into the Davenport Central Hall of Fame. He had graduated from the former Davenport High School in 1957.
Stahl was born and raised in Davenport and lived here his entire life except for a year in Iowa City while he was getting his master's degree and from 1964-66 when he was drafted and served with the U.S. Army in Germany.
His grandfather and father were milk men, and boyhood memories of their work inspired his first book of poetry, published in 1988, called "After the Milk Route."
His second book was "Under the Green Tree Hotel," published in 1996 as an Iowa sesquicentennial project, filled with poems and prose of small towns up and down the Mississippi River, visited along with Helen.
Third was "Mr. Farnam's Guests," consisting of 54 poems about 54 people who traveled on the Grand Excursion.
His fourth book, published in 2017, was "BLUFFING," a collection of poetry about the 33 Mississippi River bluffs between Clinton and St. Cloud, Minnesota, and, as Stahl writes, "the curves, elbows, sloughs and sandbars, water witchery and other wily wizardry that lay below."
Each poem is accompanied by a photo and, because of his love of nature, Stahl carefully avoided showing dams, highways and bridges.
Stahl was a consistent winner in poetry contests and had many works published in the Iowa Poetry Association's "Lyrical Iowa."
His last work?
Seventy poems inspired by what he saw, heard and felt while undergoing cancer treatments at University Hospitals in Iowa City.
He also wrote a poem, as he did every year, to be read at the Henry Farnam Dinner.
On March 19, Helen will read it in his place.
Visitation for Stahl will be 3-6 p.m. Sunday at Runge Mortuary, 838 E. Kimberly Road, Davenport.
Funeral services will be 10 a.m. Monday at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2136 Brady St., Davenport.
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