Remembering Bill Regier’s Years at Nebraska

As we honor our 75th anniversary this year, we recall and celebrate some of the most influential people in the Press’s history. 

Bill Regier

WILLIS REGIER

Willis “Bill” Regier’s career seemed destined for a professorship in the English or Classics Department of a major university. But a graduate school job with his alma mater’s literary magazine, Prairie Schooner, opened doors that led to the less traditional but deeply rewarding field of academic publishing. Regier directed the University of Nebraska Press from 1987 to 1995, but before that, he was the press’s humanities editor (1979–83) and then its editor in chief (1983–87).

Regier came to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln on an academic Regents Scholarship, granted only to Nebraska’s brightest high school graduates. And, he said, “They kept giving me scholarships, so I kept going to UNL.” He earned his BA in English (after leaving the Philosophy Department), then his MA and PhD, all from UNL. His dissertation, “Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings: Confrontations between Tradition and the Avant-Garde,” offered a glimpse of his scholarly leanings, as did graduate student positions teaching Sanskrit, literature in translation, and literature of surrealism.

As book review editor at Prairie Schooner (while also serving as an instructor in both the English and Classics Departments), Regier worked for Bernice Slote, who was a colleague and friend of the press’s editor in chief, Virginia Faulkner. When the press’s national search for a humanities editor failed, Slote and others recommended Regier, who was hired by Director Dave Gilbert.

Regier cannot praise Gilbert enough, noting that Gilbert became the first press director to be elected president of the Association of American University Presses (1982–83). Gilbert understood the importance of marketing, leveraged the power of Bison Books, and expanded UNP’s footprint in publishing series, Regier said.

After assuming leadership of the press, Regier continued Gilbert’s trajectory. His own goals for the press included making it more international in scope. Titles in the areas of European women writers, a Scandinavian writers series, and, in particular, French modernists began to attract the attention of East Coast media and critics. In a 1988 story, the Wall Street Journal dubbed the press “The Big House on the Prairie.”

Regier said the press’s goal of surpassing the University of Oklahoma Press was realized as UNP further strengthened its publishing in western history and Native American studies. “We decided to become the major press of the West, and we did it,” Regier said. “We jumped in and grabbed all of the geography between Nebraska and California, looking for major authors who were out of print and also focusing on Native America history and literature.”

During his tenure as director Regier developed a music list, he initiated the Willa Cather Scholarly editions, and acquired Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, which was published to critical acclaim for Richard Eckersley’s complex and groundbreaking graphic design. Regier also secured the paperback rights to most of the works of Mari Sandoz and Nebraska’s first poet laureate, John G. Neihardt, and significantly boosted Nebraska’s reputation in translated literature.

“The staff was loaded with Nebraska talent,” Regier said. “Jay Fultz, Kay Graber, Pam Hanson, Michael Jensen, Sandra Johnson, Alison Rold, Debra Turner, Diane Wanek. They helped attract others from every direction.”

Regier left Nebraska in 1995 to head Johns Hopkins University Press. He said at the time that the size of that press was an intriguing challenge.

More recently, Regier said the “contempt for Nebraska elsewhere in the United States also motivated me. I hated that they thought of us as regional hicks. I really wanted to show them that many important and intelligent people are Nebraska-born. When the right people are put together with adequate resources, great things can be achieved.”

He left Johns Hopkins in 1998, was a visiting scholar at Harvard for a year, and then became director of the University of Illinois Press in 1999. From 2000 to 2001, he was president of the Association of American University Presses. Regier retired from Illinois in 2015 and now teaches in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program at the University of Illinois.

Regier strongly supports the concepts of scholarly publishing and particularly the efforts of presses like Nebraska and Illinois. “There is a need to find and develop new authors, to mentor and to encourage them. There is a big difference between those who self-publish and those who are smart enough to work with others to improve their work,” Regier said. “Why not publish in Nebraska or Illinois? Do you want everything to be published out of New York? Nebraska and Illinois and others do real and important work. We represent our part of a big country, and we encourage scholarship about it and in it.”

He deeply admires the University of Nebraska Press and considers it to be the bright star of the Big Ten. “Well, the Big Ten is fundamentally an athletic conference, but there is academic competition. The University of Nebraska Press is far and away the leader in the conference in a number of metrics.” Indeed, UNP has published four of his own works: Masterpieces of American Indian Literature, Book of the Sphinx, In Praise of Flattery, and Quotology.

Regier is editing a volume on the collected works of Erasmus with the University of Toronto Press.

-Profile by Kim Hachiya