Alice “Sue” Richardson Hoffman
Published 3:31 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012
Editor, The Herald:
I was sitting in front of the computer when a message popped up from Hampden-Sydney College friend, Richard Kay: Sue Hoffman died. Retired Dean Lewis H. Drew followed shortly with his confirmation.
Her funeral services would be held the following Sunday in Charlotte Court House. Devoted daughter, Margaret Huffman, said her mother passed away late Thursday night with a final pneumonia at 87 years old.
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Observing my round computer clock tick on, from its upper right-hand perch, I froze in sadness. The first reaction: pray that the screen clock would simply stop – halt, not progress further. Time always continues to take away, even steal so many gifts of life, often in daunting fashion – reliably leaving its residue of emptiness…a bond disengaged.
Sue Hoffman, long-time right arm to Bill, her talented novelist, was perhaps our last link to this Southern writer, in an American art now becoming so distant that it seems ethereal – maybe even beyond the horizon of our memories. My shelves still exhibit every Hoffman novel; they continue to read well, today as initially…deeply treasured.
Suffering interviews, autographing books, giving lectures, Bill Hoffman was protected by Sue – she knew him like no other. As Henry C. Spaulding, Jr., Hampden-Sydney College Trustee, observed, Sue “was a sounding board for Bill when he needed someone to agree, or disagree, with a twist in a plot” She rarely left his side – always supportive. My suspicion: Sue was integrally involved not only in his life, but his work.
The only regret: we hadn't been closer. The last time a discussion occurred between us was at the Annul Patrick Henry Dinner – the Class of 1960's 50th reunion, at Hampden-Sydney College. She was frail – clearly missing her novelist husband deeply.
At that celebration, Henry Spaulding read a Resolution adopted by the College's Board of Trustees – probably the fall meeting of 2009. The Resolution, honoring Bill's memory, included citations of distinction he brought to the college: his many successful published novels, writings; Hoffman's military service; his teaching, mentoring at the College – some years, gratis; his many literary awards including The John Dos Passos Prize, Hillsdale Foundation Fiction Prize, O. Henry Awards of 1996, The Good Heart Prize, and The Andrew Lytle Prize.
Sue was present to receive a framed copy of the Resolution; out of necessity Spalding went to her table handing it to her personally. Mr. and Mrs. Ed Early had escorted her to the dinner.
Overwhelmed with Spaulding's presentation, she later thanked me for a piece I'd written in the Farmville Herald remembering both Bill Hoffman and Margaret Leveque of the “Boxwood” restaurant. She told me that “the boys of Hampden-Sydney College, especially those who roamed that Georgian campus of the 1950's, 60's, and 70's” probably felt the terrible separation from Bill as much as she did.
At my request, Henry C. Spaulding agreed to share the special relationship he and wife, Kaye, enjoyed with the Hoffmans. “We saw a lot of Bill and Sue in the country. They had their place at Winter Harbor in Matthews County, and we had our cottage in Gloucester. We traded visits for a number of years – always fun. Often Ned Crawley would visit the Hoffmans in Matthews; Kaye and I would go over and join them. Sue even had us visit them in Charlotte Court House at their home, 'Wynard'.” There, Spaulding requested that Bill donate his papers to H-SC. Bill's response: “nobody has ever asked me until this moment”. Sue later approved the gift, and that was that.
Bill Hoffman could be direct. Some years back Sue stood with him when he suddenly turned to me asking, “Ray, which of the novels did you like best.” Sue laughed; she knew as did I that a generic “all of them” would not fly. My response was quick: A Place For My Head. His inquiry continued: “Why?” Again simple -the novel's setting was clearly Southside Virginia, about the tumultuous times of school closings, the characters deeply flawed, but sympathetic…reading it had been a great experience for me. Standing beside “Bert” Crawley, Sue laughed again, saying something akin to, well, you passed the exam.
Dr. John Brinkley, retired Hampden-Sydney College professor, said it best: “Professor Hoffman could be blunt with his students, but the intent was always pure”. I think Sue had a major role in that “purity” business.
Henry and Kaye Spalding's daughter, now Maria Hadlow, once a graduate student, visited Sue and Bill at Charlotte Court House. She ended up writing her thesis on Bill and his novels….no one could have been more pleased than Sue. Come to think of it, Sue would want me to read Maria's work…I'd better get busy.
I'll love you… till the poets… run out of rhyme….until the twelfth of never…and that's a long, long time.