Don Ault: A Short Biography

Don was born in Canton, Ohio, to Arthur, a shear-blade sharpener at Republic Steel, and Lillian, a stay-at-home mom (unless Arthur’s union was on strike, in which case she clerked at a department store). Don was a mostly solitary child. Before entering elementary school, he taught himself to read Donald Duck comic books written and drawn by Carl Barks, a brilliant but anonymous worker bee in the growing Disney hive.

He attended Timken High School, the local trade school where admission was by exam only, and took advanced courses in math and drafting. Always the top student in his classes, Don was encouraged by his teachers to enroll in night courses at Kent State University’s satellite campus in Canton, which he did while working part-time as a draftsman during the day. Professors there urged him to move up to the main campus in Kent, Ohio, where he enrolled as a math and physics major with plans to become an engineer.

In his senior year, however, he took a class in 18th century English poetry, and he was instantly smitten. He graduated with a major in English literature and minors in math and physics, then moved on to earn a master’s degree in English lit at Kent. During that time, he met and married his wife Lynda, and together they headed off to the University of Chicago, where Don had been given a full scholarship. After his first year, he was awarded the William Rainey Harper Fellowship and wrote his dissertation on the long poems of William Blake.

In August of 1968—against the backdrop of fights between police and demonstrators raging outside of the Democratic Convention—Don and Lynda headed out with their two dogs, who had been “liberated” from the Chicago Medical School’s animal labs. Their destination was Don’s first teaching job at the University of California, Berkeley—where a Bank of America branch had just been bombed.

In spite of the chaos of those early years, the burgeoning scholar had clearly found his life’s work. Don, only 25 years old at the time, had grown a beard, hoping to look a little older than his students. He loved teaching, and his research expanded from British poets to Isaac Newton and the history of science. His first book, Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1974. The title was lauded by intellectuals like Jacob Bronowski, Northrop Frye, and Paul Feyerabend. To his delight, Don also managed to include some Barks’ Disney comics in his course reading lists. These classes were perhaps the first time that English literature at a top university—or any university—included comics scholarship.

Lynda finished her B.A. in Berkeley in 1969, and their first daughter was born in 1972. Their circle of friends both inside and outside the university was diverse in backgrounds, interests, and talents; and the Berkeley years were eye-opening and exciting to two kids from the midwest. In an event almost beyond belief, Don met the Disney comics genius Carl Barks, who became one of Don’s best friends until Carl’s death in 2000 (he even appeared in a Barks painting hpolding a comic book). Don gave the eulogy at Carl’s funeral and served as one of the pallbearers.

In 1976, Don was offered a tenured promotion by Vanderbilt University, and Don and Lynda packed up their daughter, three dogs, and and a couple of friends (who drove their moving truck) and headed off to yet another very different venue in Nashville, Tennessee. Those were good years; Don was happy with the quality of his students, more lifetime friendships were forged, another daughter was born, and Nashville proved to be a family-friendly town. Lynda worked as a medical photographer and then attended Vanderbilt Law School. By that time, Don was openly teaching graduate classes in comics and film—in retrospect, an amazing achievement considering the deeply conservative Southern traditionalism of the English department at that time.

In 1997, Don was again recruited, this time by the University of Florida in Gainesville. There he and his family settled in for the remainder of his life. Again, these were good years. Don was always happy in the classroom, and often students (graduate and undergraduate alike) would return semester after semester until they had taken every class he taught. More friendships were added to those that have continued from all phases of his life until today. His 14-years-in-the-making book Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas was designed and published brilliantly by Station Hill Press. His patient publisher George Quasha became another lifetime friend.

While continuing to teach Blake, Newton, and the British Romantic poets, Don expanded his prestige in the realm of comics scholarship. With the support of UF’s English department, he inaugurated the graduate-level comics scholarship program, which curates the ImageTexT journal and accompanying annual conference. All of these were the first of their kinds, and they paved the way for modern inquiry and research. Don’s own reputation as a scholar and historian of popular media, with an emphasis on animation and comics—especially those of his friend Carl Barks—increased as he traveled domestically and abroad to lecture on the artist and his work.

Don began experiencing health problems following spinal surgery in 2004, but he continued to enjoy teaching until, under pressure from his family, he retired in 2014; Lynda believes it was Don’s plan to drop dead in the classroom. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. He did, however, continue to research and write on Blake, Newton, and Barks as long as he was able to sit at his desk.

Most people who came to know Don agree that he was a unique and brilliant person. He was also kind, generous, non-judgmental, and funny as hell—qualities his friends and students will readily attest. His sense of humor, his quirks, his trademark scholarship, and his incomparable vision will be missed by all who knew him, either in person or in words.

If you have your own memories of Don that you’d like to share, please submit them to us via this form. You can also read what others have written here.

 

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