Not your average Joe

Many know Dr. Joe Crowley as a longtime president of UNR, others as a pot shop owner—and a few are on a first-name basis with him as a poetry classmate


Until I took Gailmarie Pahmeier's poetry class, I'd only known him for the campus building that bears his name. Now I know him as one of the best poetry critics I've had the pleasure of being critiqued by.

When I enrolled in my first poetry class in my junior year at the University of Nevada, Reno, I sat across from an older man named Joe. I would often look across the workshop as I read my poems and wonder what he could be thinking as his chin sat in his palm and his brows furrowed together. The class was a rowdy group, always laughing and cracking jokes, seats arranged in a circle. In our first meeting, Joe announced that he was a “gerund detective.” Everyone had a good laugh, and a student on my side of the circle bravely asked, “Well, what the hell is a gerund?”

Gerunds are nouns that are converted to verbs with the addition of “-ing,” and Joe is a grammar sleuth who always keeps an eye out for them. “Gerund Detective” became his nickname.

It didn’t take me long to discover that Joe wasn’t just an older man with a love of poetry. When I read his poem, a captivating piece on worms, I noticed his last name was all too familiar. The first three weeks of class I heard several students ask our professor, “Is that the Joe Crowley, like of the Student Union?”

Until I took Gailmarie Pahmeier’s poetry class, I’d only known him for the campus building that bears his name. Now I know him as a pleasant man who is always smiling—and one of the best poetry critics I’ve had the pleasure of being critiqued by.

Indirect path

Joseph Crowley was born to Jim and Nina Crowley on July 9, 1933, in Oelwein, Iowa. He received his degree in political science from the University of Iowa and went on to receive his Master’s Degree from California State University, Fresno and his doctorate from the University of Washington.

Joe and his wife, Margaret, have four children, all of whom attended UNR, and their grandchildren attend as well. Joe himself hasn’t always been the face of academic success. He admitted he “had a great time for two years” at the University of Iowa before being asked to leave with his 1.1 GPA. He enlisted in the Air Force and took classes for three years in Germany through the University of Maryland.

“I became an adult and realized I wanted a college degree,” he said. He wrote to Iowa University, and they welcomed him back on probation in January 1958. Joe said that he really wanted to be a sports journalist, but he realized that he could graduate sooner as a political science major, so that’s the major he declared. He graduated in May of 1959. He did make his dream of sports journalism a reality—when he wrote and published the NCAA Centennial History almost 50 years later.

Joe served as UNR’s president for 23 years. He helped found the Division of Health Sciences and Reynolds School of Journalism.

From my point of view, though, the best thing he’s done at UNR is take classes. He was a fellow student with the qualities of an older, wiser professor. When I read one of my more revealing poems, a poem about making love to my boyfriend, in front of the entire class—including Joe—I was completely embarrassed. I can still remember the warmth radiating off my face as I glanced across the classroom and read about “bodies colliding and moans of release.” I told Joe later how mortified I was to read that poem in front of him, and he simply laughed.

One thing Joe told me is that being in a position of power doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like you. One afternoon in my junior year, we discussed a critic whom he described as “really, a nice guy,” who described Joe in his article in the 1998 May/June edition of the Silver & Blue as a “C president—far from good enough.”

This detractor was Jake Highton, the recently deceased, retired journalism professor who was known as a tough grader. On other occasions, Highton described Joe as “pliable” and weak. Joe takes criticisms gracefully, whether in print or in class.

When I recently told him about the whisperings of “the Joe Crowley” being in our poetry class, he laughed and said, “At one time I did have a classmate who didn’t feel comfortable critiquing me.” He decided then that he would simply go by “Joe” because he wanted to learn, critique and be critiqued as much as the next student.

He often wrote pieces that related to his much younger classmates. In the final reading at the end of the semester, Joe agreed, at our suggestion, to read his poem “Incomplete Heat.” As he read, the crowd rang with laughter and hoots of approval when he freely and quite solemnly spoke about a “hottie” who built his body with “lattes, gelati, and lots of pilates.”

Poetry in motion

Crowley began taking Gailmarie Pahmeier’s poetry workshops in 2007 and has taken a total of 13 semesters. Until then, he’d only written doggerel—loosely styled comic poetry, which he said is “regarded as the lowest form of poetry”—about his wife and children.

Eventually, his work caught the eye of Christine Kelly, publisher and director of Baobab Press and owner of Sundance Books and Music. She asked Joe to send her some poems for publishing.

“I didn’t think I was good enough,” he told me. Kelly saw it differently, though.

“The charming thing about his work is he is a fabulous storyteller and observer of culture and people,” she said. “Quite a few [of his poems] are real standouts.” Her favorite is “Ben and I at Seventy-Five” which she describes as an “incredible homage to his wife.” In the poem, Crowley explores what it feels like to be getting older: “Remember when this age was ancient, / when arteries hardened, hearts were tired, / breathing labored, hips at risk, other joints/ out organizing protests?”

A year later, Joe relented. In 2016, his first poetry book, Hats Off to the Cap, was published. Its poems range from sentimental reflections on his life and family to comedic, quirky ramblings on anything from wine to getting a haircut. He depicts the most complex aspects of life and remembers the humorous parts, too. In one poem, “Vino Vocabulary,” Joe pokes fun at the sometimes silly descriptions vintners create for their wines: “Consider a new Grenache in Northern California, said by / a connoisseur to be confident, dashing, / gregarious, though a touch glib, / with an occasional temper but just enough / shyness, and a bit of Chekov-like reserve.”

Crowley is still hard at work putting pen to paper. His newest venture is a chapter book on nursery rhymes, something that has always fascinated him. He also attends the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop every year, even though he said that he wasn’t sure if anyone else his age still takes part.

Outside of writing, in August 2015, Joe helped open Reno’s first medical marijuana shop, Sierra Wellness Connection, acting first as director, more recently as a board member.

A lifelong learner, Joe is still active on the UNR campus and has an office in the Reynolds School of Journalism. Many words have been used to describe Joe Crowley. To me, he’s funny, kind, talented and charming. He’s much more than your average Joe.