Beloved English Department Professor Announces Retirement

By Madeline Riccardi, Editor-in-Chief

English Department Professor Michelle Maher announced her retirement early this month after 31 years at La Roche University.

The University of Notre Dame graduate decided that it was time for her to retire after dedicating her life to her love of poetry and English. “My heart was telling me that it was time,” Maher said.

Dr. Maher began working at La Roche University in 1990 after moving back to Pittsburgh after her first child was born.

“I searched for work for 3 years and taught as an adjunct in Indianapolis for a semester,” Maher said. “This was one of the hardest times of my life. Eventually, after we had our first child, [my husband] and I moved back to Pittsburgh to be close to my parents. Miraculously, a job opened up at La Roche, which was about 10 minutes from our home. Being hired was thrilling.”

Pictured: Dr. Michelle Maher
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Michelle Maher

Before teaching at La Roche, Maher attended undergraduate school with a major in accounting. She soon found herself miserable and drawn to English courses, which she said gave her the opportunity to double major.

“My father wanted me to have a degree that would enable me to support myself once I graduated. I can understand how this made sense. At the time, however,” Maher said, “I was miserable, so I filled my electives with English courses so that I could have a double major.”

After spending the year after her graduation working at a public accounting firm, Maher and her husband, Bob Barnes, decided that their jobs in accounting were not enjoyable.

“Bob was good at accounting and became a CPA, but he didn’t like it either. After we saved enough money to support ourselves, we quit our jobs. Bob went to law school, and I went to graduate school at Indiana University, Bloomington,” Maher said.

Now that Maher’s time as a professor at La Roche is coming to an end, she has revealed that her favorite part of teaching is talking with her students and examining what literature shows the world about being alive.  

“Teaching,” Maher said, “is an inherently hopeful field because a classroom is a place of transformation. I try to give my students what my teachers gave me, which in addition to an understanding of specific texts, is a passionate love of reading and writing.

“Those exchanges are what I’ll miss the most,” Maher said about teaching.

Maher said she is not only sad about retiring, but she is also looking forward to the new opportunities the new chapter of her life will bring. She said she will enjoy spending more time with her family and friends, and she wants to spend her time writing and gardening.

“I’d like to be part of the poetry community to a greater degree, and volunteer as a literacy tutor,” Maher said. “I also love gardening.”

Poetry for Maher has evolved since she first started teaching. Recently, she published her first poetry book, “Bright Air Settling Around Us.”

Although this is her first published collection, Maher has work published in Cordella, the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, the Georgetown Review, the Chautauqua Literary Journal and the Atlanta Review.

Maher sees her poems as a way of saying thank you to the universe for her life. “I want to leave something behind that hopefully, when I am no longer here, [will remind] my children how much I loved them and how much I loved being in the world,” Maher said.

The poet does not currently have plans for another published collection, but she said she will continue to write poems that she might publish someday.

“I want to live with a sense of joy and gratitude,” Maher said of her future hopes and goals.

Although she does not have a favorite poetry piece, Maher’s close friend and fellow English Department Professor, Dr. Janine Bayer, said she has a special fondness for the poem “Five or Six Therapists Ago.”

“I love the imagery of black snakes in a cage in the poet’s chest; it’s so powerful and terrifying that it takes my breath away every time I read it,” Bayer said.

Bayer went on to say that she also loves the poem “Santuario di Soviore” because of its beautiful imagery and references to history and religion.

“It weaves gorgeous imagery of the Italian countryside together with multiple layers of religious and historical complexity in a way that makes me want to read it over and over again,” Bayer said. “It’s remarkable.”

The English Department head also said that she loves the poem “If You Really Want to Grow a Pair, Try Breasts” because it is powerful, moving, and entirely feministic.

When asked what she will remember the most about her time at La Roche, Maher said, “Being with my students and friends. Everyone here at La Roche has touched my life in some way. It’s been a wonderful journey.”

Bayer admitted that she will greatly miss Maher as a colleague because of the impact she has had on her.

“From a professional perspective, she has been a truly wonderful colleague in the English department—always happy to work on important initiatives and projects, represent the department at recruitment events, and serve as an advisor for Sigma Tau Delta and Nuances Literary Magazine,” Bayer said.

“On a personal level,” Bayer said, “our close friendship has been so wonderfully fulfilling for me. Dr. Maher is genuinely kind, generous, loving, honest, and compassionate. I could never hope for a more beautiful friend.”

For those seeking a final piece of guidance before she leaves La Roche, Maher has a final piece of advice: “Gratitude,” Maher said, “and forgiveness are essential for internal freedom.”

“As a respected professor and widely published poet, Dr. Maher has taught all of us how to love and appreciate wonderful poetry on a deeper level. She has turned her students and friends onto the work of poets whose contributions to the literary arts can change your life,” Bayer said. “She has also shared her beautiful spirit of friendship with the faculty and staff. Michelle is unabashedly loving — and we all need those moments of light and kindness in our lives.”

The faculty and students at La Roche University will greatly miss Dr. Michelle Maher. Her knowledge, humor, and the fact that she was always unapologetically herself make her a treasure that the University is losing, according to Bayer.

The English Department wishes Dr. Maher congratulations on her retirement and the best of luck on her future endeavors.

Pictured: Dr. Michelle Maher during her reading of “Bright Air Settling Around Us”
Photo Credit: Steven Munshower

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