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Shawnee Mission East friends recall Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor James Tate

James Tate in his high school days at Shawnee Mission East.
James Tate in his high school days at Shawnee Mission East. Submitted

Tater Bug.

That was the name James Tate — the Kansas City-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died July 8 — answered to during his years at Shawnee Mission East High School.

A common sentiment in interviews with Tate’s friends over the years was that their old classmate, however celebrated he became, hadn’t changed much since his Prairie Village youth.

That remained so even after Tate became a member of the Eastern literary establishment as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“He was just a really good guy,” said Jack Kettler, a Shawnee Mission East classmate of Tate, who graduated in 1961.

Both Kettler and Tate were members of the Zoo Club, a “gang” at East with about 25 members.

Tate received his nickname from the gang’s leader, Kettler said. Other members answered to “Bear,” “Rhino,” “Moose” — hence the zoo reference. (Kettler’s name: “Rabbit,” as in Jack.)

In a 2006 Paris Review interview, Tate described his “gang” in “American Graffiti” terms: ducktail haircuts, girlfriends, a preferred drive-in and the occasional tense moment when rival “gang” members trespassed on their turf.

“He may have glamorized it a little bit,” Kettler said.

“He called it a gang, which it wasn’t. We were just a bunch of guys. When we were growing up there wasn’t anything developed south of 103rd Street, so we had all those areas to find places to play, and we did.

“He was a handsome kid, with an infectious smile, and the girls all loved him.”

In the Paris Review interview, Tate proved candid regarding his sometimes melancholy childhood. He had been an infant when his father died during a World War II bombing run over Germany.

He described in detail his sometimes turbulent adolescence, at least at home. After his father died, Tate said, his mother remarried three times, with one husband mistreating her and another shooting up the house with a handgun.

Tate also described an angst-filled moment — again echoing “American Graffiti” — when he hesitated over going on to college. Tate described himself as an indifferent student at East and had not planned on enrolling.

But upon realizing in August that all of his friends were headed off to school, he submitted a hurried application to what is now Pittsburg State University in southeastern Kansas.

At Pittsburg, Tate met a faculty member who encouraged an interest in poetry.

The world knows the rest.

Over the years Tate would visit Kansas City — various “Zoo Club” members attended one reading years ago — and Kettler always followed his friend’s career. He remembers once leafing through an edition of People magazine and seeing a photo of Tate with novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s Tater with Kurt Vonnegut,’” Kettler said. “‘Not too shabby.’”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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