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Julie Mancini, lover of language and champion of the literary arts, dies at 73

Mancini, whose legacy includes work with Literary Arts, Writers in the Schools, Mercy Corps, and the Children's Institute, was known for her creativity and being "pretty much unstoppable."

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Julie Mancini. Photo courtesy: Literary Arts
Julie Mancini, former executive director of Literary Arts, was a “force for good in every way,” according to former Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg. Photo courtesy: Literary Arts

Julie Mancini, longtime leader of what is now Literary Arts and a revelatory fighter for the existence and visibility of Portland’s literary scene, died Monday at the age of 73 surrounded by her immediate family. The cause of death was lung cancer, her family said.

Mancini joined what was then known as Portland Arts & Lectures in 1985. The organization merged in 1993 with the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts to become Literary Arts, and Mancini served as executive director for 15 years. In 1997, she founded Writers in the Schools, now Literary Arts Youth Programs. When she left Literary Arts, the organization had a $750,000 budget and $1 million dollar endowment.

“Julie was a force of nature,” Literary Arts’ Executive Director Andrew Proctor wrote on the group’s website Wednesday. “She was smart and wry and funny and caring and pretty much unstoppable. She was radically creative. I feel incredibly fortunate to have known her, and feel the force of her professional accomplishments every day as I continue her work.”

Mancini received her master’s degree in child development from Tufts University and put it to good use as a preschool teacher in South Boston and later as a child development educator at Portland Community College. In addition to working with Literary Arts, Mancini served on the board of directors for the Children’s Institute. After she left Literary Arts, she was the first executive director of Caldera Arts, then started the Lyceum Agency, representing writers for their public appearances. She went on to become director for Mercy Corps’ Action Center in Portland before assuming the position of executive director for College Possible Oregon in 2015.

From growing weekly local audience numbers toward the thousands to convincing internationally renowned authors – including Maya Angelou, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and Joan Didion and her husband, John Dunne — to visit Portland, Mancini was known as a passionate advocate of books, writers, and the subtle art of language.

In a 1989 Oregonian article about Mancini’s selection as leader of Mercy Corps’ Old Town action center, Nancy Bragdon, who worked with her at Literary Arts, said of Mancini, “Julie sees possibilities… she’s absolutely superb at starting things.”

Megan McMorran, who worked at Literary Arts alongside Mancini from 1987 to 2000, said she was exceptionally beloved. She was constantly looking for new ways to support both writers and readers, and her impact on the community extended past facilitating the visits of renowned authors to ensuring unique programming for school-aged children and paying local writers living wages. 

Portland author Karen Karbo recalled in a Facebook post: “In 1997 she called me and asked if I wanted to get paid ‘real money’ to teach a 3-week creative writing intensive at a local high school. I would parachute in and commandeer the class, while the regular in-class teacher sat back (in one case, a teacher excused himself while I taught to pick up his dry-cleaning). For a cool three grand, I would have three weeks to do anything I wanted. I loved the crazy creative/guerilla spirit of the whole endeavor. It was pure Julie. This was the beginning of Writers in the Schools.”

Mancini was “one of the most significant figures in the history of Oregon in terms of arts and culture,” former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg wrote in a Facebook post this week. “She was a force for good in every way. I miss the conversations that led me always to believe that anything was possible.”

Along with being a talented and motivated administrator, Mancini was also a gifted speaker — despite always writing her name down on cue cards due to bouts of event-related anxiety, she once quipped. In a speech during Literary Arts’ 30th birthday celebration in 2014, she captivated her audience with anecdotes from her extensive career and demonstrated how her willpower and unyielding drive had delivered positive results.

“What we did for the first many years was literally beg writers to come here,” she said. “It’s hard to remember a time when writers and publishers didn’t care about Portland, Oregon… We finally got Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to come because Calvin Trillin called them and said, ‘OK, go out there, I promise you. Stay at The Heathman and eat the salmon hash.’ So they did.”

“Salman Rushdie came during the Fatwa and we needed everyone to call the office and give us their name, and then we had to check 3,000 peoples’ IDs at the door,” she continued. “Other people came because they saw the list of people who had already come. When we asked Toni Morrison why she finally, finally came, she said, ‘Because you wouldn’t stop asking.’”

Of all Mancini’s accomplishments, her greatest may be the positivity she embedded in those around her. Co-workers, friends, family, authors, and acquaintances all had a joyful word or story to contribute. Barry Johnson, executive editor of Oregon ArtsWatch, called her “a dynamo, a creator of legendary and sometimes R-rated riffs, a wonderful gossip, a brilliant and sensitive reader of the psychology of her audience, a great connector of people, and an almost irresistible persuader. She was dazzling in a city that didn’t have many dazzlers. She distributed candy and small gifts to various, and sundry! She enjoyed people as a whole… nobody in Portland was even remotely like her.”

In her post on Facebook, Karbo writes: “That first year [of Writers in the Schools] the kids and I had the idea to Xerox and bind an anthology of their essays and short stories… They wanted to call it The Big Book of Naked Lady Pictures. (There were no pictures in the anthology, naked or otherwise.) I thought, sure, why not? These kids are seniors in high school. Julie said I could do whatever I wanted. And she did not betray the spirit of the enterprise. I brought it to her and she broke into that big smile we all loved. ‘This is fucking fantastic!’ Of course, it was Julie who was fucking fantastic. There are so many extraordinary writers, teachers, students, administrators, volunteers, and readers who make Portland the bright literary star that it is, but there was no one like Julie. May she already be setting up a reading series in the summerlands. Adieu, dear one.”

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Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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