Award-winning Illinois author Robert Hellenga dies at 78

Writer had ‘a crafty, mesmerizing style, a melange of the mundane and the magical.’

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Robert Hellenga accepts the 2015 Society of Midland Authors adult fiction award at the Cliff Dwllers Club in Chicago.

Robert Hellenga accepts the 2015 Society of Midland Authors adult fiction award at the Cliff Dwllers Club in Chicago.

Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times

Highly regarded novelist, essayist and professor and short story writer Robert Hellenga knew when it was time to gamble as an author. In 2015, he explained how he did that in his novel “The Confessions of Frances Godwin.”

“The biggest risk I took in writing [the book] was introducing God as an active character and allowing him to bully Frances in Latin,” said Mr. Hellenga, who co-directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Seminar in the Humanities at Chicago’s Newberry Library in 1973 and 1974. 

The gamble paid off. The novel won the Society of Midland Authors 2015 award for adult fiction at a ceremony at the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago.

Glen Ellyn author Tony Romano, who served as a judge in the awards, said, “What really stuck with us with this book was the character, Frances Godwin. You wanted to spend time with her. She’s sarcastic, she’s shrewd, tough, irreverent, even when speaking to God. ... We come to know her on many levels.” 

Mr. Hellenga, author of eight novels, died July 18 at his Galesburg home of neuroendocrine cancer. He was 78. 

Evanston author Lynn Sloan said, “Bob was witty, wise, and warm, and he acted as if every moment mattered. Toward the end, he sent me a note that read: ‘I don’t want you to worry about me. I’ve just put together an anthology titled: ‘Prognosis for Survival – Not Good: Poems to Interrogate on Your Deathbed.’ ”

Mr. Hellenga’s wife of 56 years, Virginia Hellenga, said he read all of the roughly 150 books submitted to him in a book awards contest this spring for which he was a judge. 

“There was no saying: ‘I am going to take it easy now [because of illness],’ ” she said. 

Mr. Hellenga’s first novel, “The Sixteen Pleasures,” was rejected 39 times before Soho Press published it in 1994. The book earned wide praise. Later, Mr. Hellenga also received awards for his fiction from the Illinois Arts Council and from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

His other novels were “Snakewoman of Little Egypt,” which Kirkus Reviews and the Washington Post rated among the best fiction books of 2010; “Blues Lessons,” a finalist for a Midland Authors book award in 2002; “Philosophy Made Simple” (2006); “Fall of a Sparrow” (2007), which the Los Angeles Times listed among the best fiction of 1998; “The Italian Lover” (2007), and “Love, Death, & Rare Books” (2020), which is set partly in Hyde Park. 

He also wrote a 2016 novella combined with a collection of short stories titled “The Truth About Death and Other Stories.” 

Booklist wrote that “[A]ll of Hellenga’s novels revel in the details of their protagonists’ occupations.” A 2010 Chicago Sun-Times book review said Mr. Hellenga had “a crafty, mesmerizing style, a melange of the mundane and the magical.” 

“Books informed his whole life,” his daughter Heather Hellenga said. 

Mr. Hellenga, the George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Knox College in Galesburg, was born in Milwaukee. He grew up both in that city, where he spent his summers, and in Three Oaks, Michigan. He graduated with honors from the University of Michigan, where he married Virginia Hellenga, and did graduate work at the Queen’s University of Belfast, the University of North Carolina and Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D. 

In 1982 and 1983 he, his wife and three daughters spent 13 months in Florence, Italy, where he directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Florence programs. Italy became a recurring setting in his books. 

He also was an avid cook and amateur guitar player.

Mr. Hellenga is also survived by an older brother, Ted Hellenga Jr., and daughters Rachel Hellenga and Caitrine Hellenga, and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be planned when it is again safe to gather in person. 

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