Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. was Nassau County’s first poet laureate in every sense except the official.
He was snubbed by the legislative committee created to appoint him because one member considered some of his poems on war unpatriotic. But his peers and community rallied behind him and in 2007, acclaimed him so anyway.
The Freeport resident, who dedicated his life to serving his community through poetry, died June 7 at age 89 in his daughter’s Alexandria, Virginia, home. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, family members said, and he was “surrounded by love, poetry and music right to the end.”
“He was somebody that made everybody feel special,” said Paula Camacho, a Farmingdale resident and president of the Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee, initially established to appoint Wheat. “If you had met him, he showed this intense interest in you.”
Wheat was born March 18, 1927, and grew up in upstate Geneva, where he attended Geneva High School. He served as a Marine in 1944 and 1945, and received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1951 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. He also received a master’s in English from New York University and a master’s in education from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
In 1955, he married Dorothy Virginia “Ginger” Rasche, “the love of his life” said his daughter Emilie Wheat of Alexandria, adding that family was everything to her father.
He started writing poetry to connect to his mother, who died when Wheat was 7. He shared his passions with his three daughters, driving to Washington, D.C., to participate in civil rights marches, holding family poetry contests and planning stargazing trips to Jones Beach. A fervent naturalist, he passed down his respect for nature to his children and grandchildren, said his daughter Nellie Lynch of Deal Island, Maryland.
“He taught me never to kill bugs,” said Lynch, who in turn taught her children to respect living things.
He wrote for a number of publications, including the Geneva Daily Times, and published six chapbooks of poetry. Wheat held a “childlike wonderment” and appreciation for the natural world, said his daughter Dede Amescua-Wheat of Lompoc, California, and often melded his love for nature and writing, not only through poetry, but also through journalism.
An avid birdwatcher, he ran the New York State Ornithological Association’s “New York Birders” newsletter for 23 years starting in 1972. He also freelanced as a nature writer for Newsday.
But Wheat was a poet first and foremost. His subject matter varied, though he is best known for “the kind of poetry that we all love and think of when we think of Robert Frost,” said Mario Susko, a Mineola resident and Nassau County Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015.
Wheat’s love for verse and passion for the Long Island community drew an equally passionate crowd of followers, said Joe Whalen, of Freeport, a friend and neighbor of Wheat.
Wheat was regularly featured on Whalen’s radio show, “Frontiers,” on WHPC 90.3 FM. He also taught at Farmingdale High School and founded a number of community outreach programs, including Taproots and You Can Write Poetry!, both for older writers.
“He almost had like a ministry, a dedication to local poets,” Whalen said. “He understood [his title] was not just a ceremonial thing.”
In addition to Wheat’s wife and daughters, he is survived by six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The family is planning a July celebration of Wheat’s life at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in Huntington Station.