Jimmy Gauntt, a former USC student who majored in English, died tragically and unexpectedly when he was struck by a car in the summer of 2008. He was 24 years old.
I met Jimmy in 2004, when he enrolled in my survey of American Literature. Simply put, he was an outstanding student. A beautiful writer, whose prose was clear and concise, Jimmy had a distinct poetic voice. He was generous with his insights and always drawn to engage his fellow classmates intellectually. But Jimmy was more than merely smart. His curiosity was infectious, his appreciation for creativity profound. Jimmy’s interest in the literary, visual, and performing arts was deeply felt. He was a poet, a musician, a playwright. I was very proud to be his teacher and mentor.
After he graduated in 2006, Jimmy and I would occasionally go see plays and performances. Once we had a huge debate about how to stage Shakespeare. We had seen Peter Hall’s production of As You Like It at the Ahmanson, and while I thought the production was way too conventional, Jimmy raved about how great it was to hear Shakespeare’s language spoken by expert actors. Another time, we were at the Roosevelt Hotel listening to Audra McDonald sing selections from the American songbook. No debate that night, we just basked in the glow of her talent. On these excursions, we shared stories about our lives, and Jimmy confided in me his life goals. He was an extraordinary young man, and I can’t begin to describe the sense of loss I felt when I heard of Jimmy’s death. He was such a sweet person—wide grin, big heart, warm embrace. This award pays tribute to Jimmy’s short life and enormous talent. It memorializes a USC undergraduate English major who believed that the arts make a difference in our lives and lived so accordingly.
Jimmy was, of course, unique. His singularity, and the tender beauty of his being, made him irreplaceable. That said, every semester I encounter many students like him in my classes. Smart, compassionate, interesting people who make the brave move to major in English. I love these students. I admire their audacity to declare themselves poets, novelists, and even scholars. This award honors those students who, like Jimmy, invest in the world of ideas; creative and intelligent young people whose commitment to the literary, visual, and performing arts inspires those around them. This award, while inspired by Jimmy, is for the recipients. It is their achievements at USC that we honor each year with the “Jimmy” award.
Each year the faculty is invited to nominate outstanding English majors, who are in their senior year and who have demonstrated a commitment to the arts. A faculty committee reviews the nominations and selects the recipients. We celebrate the winners at an awards dinner attended by select faculty as well as Jimmy’s parents, Hilary and Casey Gauntt, and Jimmy’s sister and brother-in-law, Brittany and Ryan Kirby. We held our first awards dinner in the spring of 2010 for the five graduating seniors who were selected by the “Jimmy” committee.
Please join me in celebrating the remarkable achievements of these and indeed all our undergraduate majors and minors by contributing to the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award Fund.
Department of English