CHAMPAIGN — Jack Stillinger died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday, April 4, 2020, at home. He was born in Chicago on Feb. 16, 1931, to Clifford and Ruth Stillinger, and was raised in Houston, Texas.
He married Shirley Stillinger in 1952. They divorced in 1970. In 1971, he married his best friend and muse, Nina Baym, to whom he remained married until her death in 2018. He was the father of four, Tom, Bob, Susan and Mary Stillinger; stepfather of two, Nancy and Geoffrey Baym; and grandparent of six.
Jack graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas in 1953 (despite the mastery of card games he acquired during those years) and earned a master of arts degree from Northwestern, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, in 1954. After he received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1958, Jack joined the English Department at Illinois as an assistant professor; six years later, he was promoted to full professor.
He received prestigious fellowships and awards throughout his long career, including (in 1970) permanent membership in the Center for Advanced Study, the highest academic honor awarded by the University of Illinois, and (in 1993) appointment to the American Academy or Arts and Sciences, the nation's oldest society honoring academic excellence.
Equally at home as a teacher, scholar, critic and editor, Jack published 28 books, and numerous articles and reviews mainly on 19th-century English literature. Widely considered a defining expert on John Keats, he edited several volumes of Keats’ poems and manuscripts.
In the 1980s, he launched a large theoretical and historical project on multiple authors, texts and readings, considering such basic questions as how writers interact with editors, publishers and other collaborators, what a “text” is when there may be many versions and how a single text lends itself to inexhaustible readings. In 2008, he published a collection of his own poems, Nina and the Balloon. The first, like many in that final collection, was a love poem to his wife.
For all his professional accomplishments, Jack would have been more comfortable with his self-description on Facebook: “retired Professor of English, edited and wrote about Romantic poets – Keats, Wordsworth, etc. Played the drums professionally long ago.” In high school he did, in fact, play regularly in Houston nightclubs.
Those fortunate enough to know him will remember his smile, his incredible sense of humor, his modest manner, his musical acumen and the depth of love and appreciation with which he greeted life each day. Right up to the end, he savored every taste, had a smile for every person, had a hearty laugh for Monty Python (especially the Silly Walks, which he used to emulate in public parking lots) and tapped his fingers enthusiastically to Dave Brubeck.
“People go all the way to the Eiffel Tower,” he once said, “and they don’t go to the top floor because it costs $1 more!” He knew that experience is what matters most and he passed knowing he had lived a wonderful life.
He is survived by his children, stepchildren and grandchildren, his sister and brother-in-law and the extraordinary caretakers who surrounded him with doting attention in his final years. The family hopes to hold a joint memorial for Jack and Nina Stillinger together at some point in the future. Those wishing to commemorate their memories might make a donation to the English Department Fellows Fund (fund number 11341010) at https://english.illinois.edu/giving/give.
His care was entrusted to Sunset Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Champaign, 710 N. Neil St., Champaign, IL 61820. Please join Jack’s family in sharing memories, photos and videos through his tribute wall at www.sunsetfuneralhome.com.