Luther Wilson, a force at UNM Press for 15 years, dies in Colorado

Former UNM Press Director Luther Wilson with the Lariat Award presented to him in 2011 by the Western Writers of America. (Courtesy of WWA)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Luther Wilson, director of the University of New Mexico Press, the university’s book-publishing arm, from 1980 to 1985 and again from 2000 to 2010, made an impression as soon as he took the helm at the Press.

“Sales are one metric of his success between 1980 and 1985,” said David Holtby, who worked at UNM Press during both of Wilson’s stints as director. “They more than tripled from $500,000 to greater than $1.5 million. When he returned in 2000, he moved the Press from $2.5 million in sales to nearly $4.5 million in 2005. He was a major force at UNM Press for 15 years.”

Holtby said Wilson was immensely personable, as well.

“He was an accomplished raconteur, always willing to talk about life’s great challenges, including fly-fishing and quantum physics, or the huge iguana he lived with when he was with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic,” said Holtby, who was associate editor and editor-in-chief at UNM Press. “My enduring picture is of him smiling kindly after another long day of meetings with UNM’s bureaucrats.”

Wilson died on Aug. 5 in Brighton, Colorado, where he moved after retiring from UNM Press. He was 77. Survivors include Judy, his wife of 41 years; a son; four stepchildren; a brother; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Wilson grew up in Kentucky and attended college at Michigan State University at Oakland (now Oakland University), where he majored in Russian literature and minored in mathematics. He was 36 when he came to UNM Press in the fall of 1980 after having served as editor-in-chief and assistant director at the University of Oklahoma Press.

Beth Hadas had been working at UNM Press for about 10 years when Wilson took charge.

“When he first came, he was so young,” she said. “But he started his adult life young. He went to college when he was 16, and then joined the Peace Corps and had a lot of experience.”

Hadas was a senior editor at the Press during Wilson’s first term there. She succeeded him as UNM Press director when he left to become director at Syracuse University Press in New York. She had retired by the time he left his position as director of the University Press of Colorado to return to UNM Press in 2000.

“He was wonderful that first term at UNM,” Hadas said. “Luther taught us some very useful things – like how to budget for a book. There were a lot of us there who learned everything we knew about the book business from Luther. And he was … willing to accept the judgment of the people he worked with.”

Wilson was director when UNM Press acquired “The Education of Little Tree,” the book Hadas refers to as “our scandalous best-seller.”

The book, credited to author Forrest Carter, was purported to be the true story of an orphan raised by his Cherokee grandparents in the Tennessee mountains during the 1930s. It had been published previously by Delacorte and was published by UNM Press in 1986, after Wilson left for Syracuse. The book, described as “engaging, funny, sad and heartwarming” had become UNM Press’s all-time best-seller by 1991, when news stories reported that it was fiction and that the author was Asa Carter, who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and had been a speech writer for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

None of that was known to UNM Press officials when they bought the rights to the book. Carter had died in 1979. Hadas said the book, despite its author’s unsavory history, “espouses good values.” According to Holtby, UNM’s edition of “The Education of Little Tree” had sold more than 1.5 million copies by 2005.

“Luther was a highly respected editor and his reputation attracted award-winning authors in such diverse fields as archaeology, Western and Native American history, photography and regional fiction,” said Holtby, himself the author of such books as 2012’s “Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood.”

With Wilson as director, UNM Press published works by such authors as Rudolfo Anaya, N. Scott Momaday, Tony Hillerman and Max Evans.

Holtby said Wilson’s return to the Press in 2000 came at a time when university presses had lost thousands of sales outlets due to a decline in independent bookstores, and the shrinking budgets of public and school libraries. UNM Press experienced growing debt and staff layoffs before Wilson retired in 2010.

In 2011, the Western Writers of America, a national organization of people who write fiction and nonfiction about the American West, presented Wilson with the Lariat Award, which honors those who have demonstrated exceptional support for the literature of the West.

Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico, was WWA executive director when Wilson received the Lariat.

“Luther was one of the best editors in the academic press world,” Hutton said. “He … made UNM Press into one of the premier presses in the West.”

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