Author, USC professor, humorist Fox dies at 89

William Price Fox
William Price Fox The State

Before he became known as a novelist and short story writer of literary fame, William Price Fox worked as a bellhop, a salesman, a short-order cook and served as a bombardier in the Air Force.

He was also a lookout for a moonshiner.

In the days when experience carried more heft than which literary program you graduated from, Fox didn’t just break the mold of the self-made writer. He invented it.

“He was considered one of the great storytellers of his time and one of the great American storytellers of his time,” said his wife of more than 25 years, Sarah Gilbert Fox, from her home in Washington Sunday night.

A novelist and artist herself, Gilbert Fox recounted between laughter and tears stories from her husband’s days as a university teacher, a novelist and as someone who just “brought out the best in everyone.”

Fox died early Sunday morning after a prolonged illness surrounded by “family and cats,” Gilbert Fox said. He was 89.

Born in Waukegan, Ill., to a father who was a moonshiner and musician and a mother who was a nightclub hostess when his parents met, Fox would mine his meager upbringing for many of his colorful stories. Moonshine and country music would later become the subjects of such books as “Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright” and “Ruby Red.”

He would grow up in Columbia attend Logan Elementary, Wardlaw Junior High and Columbia High School and would later lead the fight opposing his high school’s demolition.

He would later spend time in Hollywood trying his hand writing for the big screen where he was a contributor to the TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies” and held several screenwriting credits. He counted singer/songwriter Roger Miller of “King of the Road” fame as a friend along with baseball legend Satchel Paige.

He could also be quirky. Known for his love of adopting stray dogs and cats, he could often be seen walking around Winnsboro, where the couple lived for a time, with about a dozen dogs trailing him.

“His pack,” Gilbert Fox said. “He loved those dogs.”

His life would have been the stuff of truly great fiction, had it belonged to one of his characters instead of to him. And just knowing the details may still raise an eyebrow or two around Columbia – where he taught fiction as a writer-in-residence for more than two decades – would have made him smile.

Some of those details made it into the mostly autobiographical work of fiction “Wild Blue Yonder,” released in 2002, in which the life and adventures of 16-year-old character Earl Edge mirrored that of Fox’s own career in the Air Force.

“Most of it was true,” Fox would later say in interviews. “I did go into the service at 17. I did quit high school. I was in trouble. I wanted to fly and I did not want to be sent home. I was a lieutenant. I have three brothers – I took them out of the book. The ending was certainly based on the truth.”

The author of more than a dozen books and innumerable articles in such publications as Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, Harper’s and Esquire, Fox had also taught creative writing at the famous University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop before coming to USC.

During his time at USC, he brought a cadre of writers, many of whom were close friends, to Columbia as part of a taped “Writer’s Workshop Program” he produced and moderated that later aired on ETV; it included writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Joseph Heller, Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe.

His voice and humorous prose style, often coupled with a dry, sardonic wit, were often compared to Mark Twain or Flannery O’Connor.

“Caroline Gordon, who taught Flannery O’Connor, loved him,” Gilbert Fox said. “He had read a story called ‘Pit Bull’ to her and she just loved that. He had read a Faulkner story and said, ‘Well, I could do this.’”

Vonnegut, in fact, once said of Fox’s collection “Southern Fried Plus Six”: “Thank God, at last, a humorist who can make us laugh! What an idea! Bill Fox stands a good chance of capturing the laugh Americans used to give to Mark Twain in simpler times. He’s brilliant.”

And while he maintained the credibility of a literary heavyweight, many at the University of South Carolina, where he taught fiction and short story writing alongside friend and fellow writer the late James Dickey, knew him simply as a teacher of writing.

Gilbert Fox said he took great pride in working with young writers, in helping to nurture and find their own voice. He was able to offer feedback without wounding young pride, she said. “That was exactly how he was. He brought out the best in people and made everyone feel like a million bucks,” she said.

Fox went on to be honored as distinguished professor emeritus in the university’s Department of English Language and Literature.

He is survived by three children, Kathy, Colin and Jenkins.

Works by William Price Fox

“Doctor Golf,” 1963

“Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright,” 1967

“Southern Fried Plus Six,” 1968

“Ruby Red,” 1971

“Dixiana Moon,” 1981

“Chitlin’ strut and Other Madrigals,” 1983

“How ‘Bout Them Gamecocks” (with Franklin Ashley), 1985

“Golfing in the Carolinas,” 1990

“South Carolina Off the Beaten Path,” 1990

“Lunatic Wind,” 1992

“Wild Blue Yonder,” 2002

“Satchel Paige’s America,” 2007