When Ari Paul, a University of Michigan alum, met his aunt’s husband William “Buzz” Alexander as a teenager, he recognized how special Alexander was right away.
“Meeting him for the first time, you could tell he was someone of incredible experience and had an endless love of people,” Ari said.
Janie Paul, Alexander’s wife and a School of Art & Design professor, met her husband in 1992 at the Blue Mountain Center, a community of writers and artists upstate New York. They became inseparable, she said.
“He just exuded a feeling of interest in other people,” Janie said. “The first thing I noticed was that he was a great listener.”
The English professor and creator of the Prison Creative Arts Project passed away at his home in Ann Arbor on Sept. 19. He died of complications from frontal temporal degeneration at the age of 80, Janie said.
Alexander was born in Chicago and raised in Wilmette, Illinois. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1960 and returned as an instructor in 1967. While there, he joined the Anti-Vietnam War movement, putting him on the path of social justice advocacy. He moved to Ann Arbor to teach at the University of Michigan in 1971, where he taught until 2017.
He led many activist movements on campus, including “The Committee for Human Rights in Latin America.” He also pioneered anti-racist activites among University faculty, co-founding the Concerned Faculty organization in 1987. His push to require English majors to take classes about literature written by women and people of color led to the creation of the LSA Race and Ethnicity requirement, according to Janie.
“I’ll always remember Buzz for the soft-spoken pedagogical and political radicalism that allowed him to bridge generation gaps,” wrote English professor Alan Wald in an email to the department. “His success as a classroom teacher and pioneer in the development of new courses could send one into envy meltdown.”
Alexander began working with prisoners in the state of Michigan in 1990, according to PCAP’s tribute on their website. He conducted his first theater workshop at the Florence Crane Correctional Facility, which led him to create his Theater and Social Change class, Janie said. This became PCAP, a program which brings volunteers from the University into prisons to lead art education workshops, including creative writing, theater, painting and more.
Today, PCAP has an expansive reach, with volunteers entering 27 adult correctional facilities, several youth facilities, the Forensic Psychiatric Center and a public housing community each year. The program grew from Alexander’s determination to give incarcerated people the opportunity to learn, PCAP Associate Director Vanessa Mayesky said.
“Buzz was really bringing up this issue and demanding that people talk about it and think about it, and really think about the people inside prisons as people, not as mere problems to be swept under the rug or perpetrators of crime,” Mayesky said.
One of PCAP’s most notable programs is the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which Janie and Alexander created in 1996. Ari said he vividly remembers his uncle driving to numerous prisons in Michigan over spring break to collect prisoners’ art.
“Buzz would get in a pickup truck on his week off, and he would drive to correctional facilities all around Michigan, this huge state in the middle of February in the coldest darkest time of the year, when he could have very easily gone south to someplace warm, could kick back and relax,” Ari said. “He could have read books, he could have done anything. But this was his calling, and he sort of had this feeling that because these people are behind bars, if he didn’t do this, no one else would.”
Stephen Hartnett, editor of “Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts and Educational Alternatives,” said people in the prison education field looked up to Buzz.
“I think for most of us who worked with him, not only was he a mentor and a positive example, but he was really kind of like a spiritual example,” Hartnett said. “I mean, all of us wanted to be more like Buzz.”
Through PCAP and his classes, Alexander inspired thousands of students. Mayesky was one of those students, and said many alumni have been emailing about how Alexander forever changed their lives.
“Many of us have been writing and talking about how Buzz changed the course of our lives, and how we would not be the people we are today or doing the work that we do if it weren’t for his teaching, if it weren’t for his example, if it weren’t for the questions he asked us,” Mayesky said.
Sara Falls, a high school English teacher in California, took Alexander’s “What is Literature?” and “Theater and Social Change” classes at the University, the latter involving improvisational theater in prisons. Alexander’s readings and discussions on prison justice got her thinking more deeply about how the education system can create a pipeline to prison, eventually compelling her to become a teacher herself.
“He started to get me to think about what it means to be a teacher,” Falls said. “This is my 20th year teaching, and I don’t think I’d be a teacher if it wasn’t for him. It’s my life’s work, and I feel deeply called to it, because it’s about finding the power in young people and helping them to use their voices and helping them feel powerful in themselves to make change.”
Melissa Palma, principal of Network Charter School in Oregon, became deeply involved with PCAP for six years while getting her teaching certificate at the University. She had taken a class with Alexander her senior year, where she said Alexander asked students to consider their place in a system with a prison-industrial complex. Palma said though this was uncomfortable, it was important in pushing students to learn.
“He would always make it go back to like, ‘What’s your part in this? What’s your place? How do you contribute to it or dismantle this?’” Palma said. “He was always asking us to personalize the political really, and it was really uncomfortable many times, and students would be upset or crying sometimes, but from, like, a very vulnerable and safe space.”
David Enders, a freelance journalist, said he recalled moments in Alexander’s class where students had powerful realizations about themselves and the privileges they had.
“I remember more students kind of having these ‘aha’ moments, in Buzz’s courses than, like, any other professor I had at Michigan,” Enders said.
Alexander inspired Emily Harris, who works at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California, to pursue a career in criminal justice and prison reform.
“PCAP and Buzz and his ability to see what I was capable of has pushed me to spend my life to get people free,” Harris said. “It’s really the most profound work, and I am so lucky that my path intersected with him and has given me a deep level of meaning.”
Alexander’s efforts weren’t only meant for student growth, however. Through his workshops, he uplifted thousands of Michigan prisoners. Danny Valentine, an artist who worked with Janie and Alexander while still in prison, said Alexander saved his life.
When Alexander entered Valentine’s life, he was serving out a 30-year sentence and could not afford an attorney, Valentine said.
“I had made plans to kill myself,” Valentine said. “I was going to make my move when they called the evening meal. But they passed out mail right before evening chow. I got this letter from this guy called Buzz Alexander.”
Alexander wrote that he’d heard Valentine was an artist, and asked if he wanted to participate in an art show he was putting on. Valentine said he participated in the art show for 20 years, each year giving him an incentive to stay alive, as well as giving him an income. When he eventually got out of prison, Alexander brought him to his home and fed him blueberry pancakes.
For the last three years of Alexander’s illness, Valentine became his full-time caretaker. Valentine said it was an honor to help Alexander, after the compassion Alexander had shown him.
“He fought for the underdog, he fought for the people that couldn’t fight for themselves, the people that didn’t get justice,” Valentine said. “There was something magical about him.”
Renardo A. Bowles, who is studying to be a social worker in Detroit, participated in Alexander’s drama and creative writing workshops while still in prison. Bowles said Alexander is the reason he decided to continue his education when he got out of prison in 2013.
“He gave me a different perspective and he impacted my life by wanting me to continue with education,” Bowles said. “Right now, I’m working with a lot of troubled youth, I’m working with the same people who have been in the same situation I was in … that, right there, inspired me to do more of that of giving back. That’s what he exemplified.”
Darryl Woods, whose prison sentence was commuted by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year, also felt Alexander’s influence through his PCAP workshops. Woods said a creative writing workshop improved his writing skills and helped him earn his GED. He also recalled Buzz’s ability to bring prisoners of different identities together, which was a rare occurrence according to Woods.
“He brought us all together, we all came together to create,” Woods said. “That was a magical thing, that was a powerful thing to do inside the prison.”
In spite of his work delving into serious, systemic problems, Alexander had a silly side too, Janie said. Laughing, she told a story of Buzz entering a theater workshop dressed up as a woman.
“He wore stockings, and high heels and a wig. And he was six-foot-four. And when he walked on stage, the women in the audience just collapsed with laughter,” Janie said.
He loved hiking, biking and reading, Janie said. Woods said he would miss Alexander’s “infectious” laugh and smile. Other people interviewed for the story chuckled about his flyaway hair. Everyone felt his legacy would live on.
Valentine said he’s hoping someone else in the community with Buzz’s magic appears.
“I just hope somebody else can carry the light the way he did,” Valentine said. “I mean, every once in awhile someone comes along, but we need people like that in our in our society and in our culture.”