English Festival: 34 years of reading, writing and laughing

YSU faculty member Gary Salvner, chair of the English Department at Youngstown State University.

Gary Salvner

Gary Salvner was there when it all began.

In the fall of 1977, fresh out of the University of Michigan and a new member of the YSU English faculty, Salvner joined fellow professors James Houck, Janet Knapp,  Thomas and Carol Gay in a small conference room to begin to create one of the most successful and enduring events in the university’s history – the YSU English Festival.

Now, as the 34th annual Festival is held March 28, 29 and 30, Salvner is the only one of the founding committee members still actively involved in the event.

“It was such an experiment,” Salvner remembers. “We were winging it. We were making it up as we went along. We had no idea if it would stick.”

Salvner, after 35 years at YSU including the last 14 years as chair of the English department, retires this summer. While he will continue to co-chair the English Festival with Associate Professor Jeff Buchanan, this year’s event marks the end of an era.

“We always wanted this to be a celebration of reading and writing,” he said. “It’s a euphemism, I know, but we wanted to encourage and reward reading and writing among young people. And I think we have been pretty successful at doing just that.”

Over the course of 34 years, nearly 100,000 students from more than 300 junior and senior high schools from Leetonia to Lordstown, from West Middlesex to West Branch, and from Kentucky to Michigan, have participated in the annual Festival on the YSU campus. Along the way they’ve given more than a half-million readings to over 300 different books, met nearly three dozen of the nation’s most prominent and successful authors of young adult literature, written thousands of essays and attended hundreds of workshops and lectures, filling every room of Kilcawley Center for three days every spring since 1979.

Over that time, the Festival has earned its share of national recognition, including the Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. It has been the topic of scholarly articles and presentations at state and national conferences. And, maybe the biggest honor of all, the Festival’s concept has been replicated from Georgia to Guam.

The Festival even has five endowment funds to help finance the event, including the Barbara Brothers fund to honor teachers for their writing and funds in memory of Houck, Candace Gay, Thomas and Carol Gay and Jeremy Salvner. Jeremy is Gary and Kathy Salvner’s son who died unexpectedly in 2005 at the age of 29. The Jeremy Salvner Memorial Music Award is presented annually to an English Festival student who creates an original music composition inspired by a book on the Festival’s reading list.

And this year, for the first time, a novel written by a YSU faculty member is on the Festival’s reading list – The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse, professor of English.

“It’s a monumental task,” Salvner said about the logistics of the annual event.

But through it all, there’s been one constant – laughter.

“In our first meetings, we would all get together and end up laughing so loud we had to close the door,” he said. “I so treasure those memories. Even today, there’s always a lot of goofing off, bad jokes and fun. We always wanted to make reading and writing fun. That’s the way it should be.”

(Editor’s note: Salvner plans to continue teaching for a little while through Extended Teaching Service. But he and his wife, who retires this summer as a guidance counselor at the Crestview schools, also hope to travel and, especially, “fuss over our grandchildren a little.”)