EVANSVILLE. William Sovern was many things to many people: an artist, a mentor, a community leader, a humanitarian, perhaps even a father.
Many knew him simply as “Hooser Bill”. Those closest to him define him by his authenticity, generosity and unparalleled presence.
“Bill was never sold. Never even came close,” said friend and former Courier & Press photographer Bob Gwaltney. “He followed his dream to be a poet, to be an artist. These were values from which he did not deviate.”
Whoever knew him, it’s clear that Evansville’s art community has lost perhaps its most influential force. Sovern, Indiana’s Beat Poet Laureate, suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident on July 29. After being taken off life support, he remained in hospice until his death on Friday evening. He was 73 years old.
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“This is going to do a tremendous amount of damage to our community,” said friend Jean Kizer. “It will be extremely difficult for anyone to even try to take his place. If you look at a lot of things around Haynie’s Corner and Downtown, it’s because of him. He had a gift.”
Kizer described Sovern as fiercely loyal, forever forgiving, eloquent, kind, thoughtful and gentle.
He was the driving force behind the founding of Haynie’s Corner in the early 2000s, opening the first art gallery there and tirelessly petitioning the city to have the area recognized as an arts district, which eventually became a reality. But he was even more practical than that, Kizer said: Sovern believed that supporting art meant supporting the artist on a personal level.
“He would always find someone a place to stay, feed them, give them space to perform,” she said. “Musicians, artists, poets… he didn’t draw any lines. If you were doing something creative, he was there to support you. He always saw the good in people.”
Sovern served in the US Air Force during Vietnam as an intelligence officer, interpreting aerial photographs to determine strike coordinates. He had a keen eye for detail, and when he returned to Evansville, he poured his energies into earning an art degree at the University of Southern Indiana and immersing himself in local art.
In addition to poetry, he has also directed documentaries, managed an art gallery, organized events, painted houses, taken aerial photography, and filmed Kentucky horse races for broadcast, among other things.
“Evansville wasn’t really known as a super place for creative people,” Kizer said. “Bill created the space for that. He will meet all these young people and bind them. I truly believe that without him, this community would not exist today.”
Grace Strange stayed by Sovern’s side during his final days, remembering the promise she once made to his mother. They met in 1992 and remained close after their romantic relationship ended. Strange joked that he was the best friend she ever had and also the worst boyfriend she ever had.
“I don’t leave his bedside … I promised his mother on her deathbed that no matter what, I would always take care of him,” she said. “I am incredibly proud to call him my friend.”
In the 1990s, Sovern and Strange held poetry readings in their Southeast Second Street apartment — Strange said she feared they would be evicted one night when 105 people showed up — and together ran a Downtown gallery called The Poet House and Art Emporium until 2010.
Sovern has held poetry readings at various venues around Evansville for decades, bringing together poets from across the Midwest. Lately, his groups have been meeting at the Bokeh Lounge on the third Tuesday of every month. Memorial readings are planned for Boke on August 16.
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“Bill was a wonderful mentor to dozens of young men and women,” she said. “He encourages everyone to have a voice, whether you’re a professional or just wrote it on a bar napkin. We used to joke that poetry is free therapy.”
In the late ’90s, Sovern founded a poetry group called Shakespeare’s Monkey, somewhat self-deprecatingly, with the concept that enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time could eventually produce texts on the level of William Shakespeare. The band supported the poets with instruments, creating soundscapes that complemented the spoken word.
“It was a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of atmosphere,” Kizer said. “It was a time when poetry as an art form was a force. People paid attention.”
Teresa Roy said she had known Sovern for about 35 years and described him as a “wonderful man.”
“I’ve heard him called our ‘Poetry Kid,’ but he was so much more than that,” she said. “For me, it’s all about the legacy he created. You always had a place with Bill.”