Kathryn Hohlwein may be 76 and retired, but that hasn't stopped her from continuing to spread the gospel of Homer.
After 30-plus years of teaching college students about the mysterious Greek poet famous for the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," Hohlwein is enjoying something of an epic second act.
In 1998, when she retired from California State University, Sacramento, the professor discovered she still had a loyal following. She couldn't seem to stop talking about Homer and her students wouldn't let her.
After teaching a six-week Saturday Homer class through the Sacramento Poetry Center, Hohlwein (pronounced hole-vine) sensed there was enough enthusiasm for a group reading of Homer's major poems.
She hosted a 10-hour overnight event at Gibson Ranch Park, complete with torches and bonfires and 80 readers following along with flashlights. She edited the "Iliad" to fit the time frame, and assigned parts to eager participants.
"It was one of those experiences that you feel is so far removed from everyday existence. I remember it to this day," says George Spanos, a lawyer with the state attorney general's office who opened the reading by reciting his lines in Greek. "You have to live through the experience to really understand it."
The event was a hit and had an unlikely ripple effect. Hohlwein has hosted more Homer readings in Sacramento, another in New York City and has major events scheduled in Egypt and Greece.
She has formed a nonprofit group to oversee the readings, with the potential to raise money for communities that host future Homer gatherings. Post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, is a likely site for reading Homer and raising money.
"In the age of the quick and the easy, I propose the long and the difficult," writes Hohlwein in the Readers of Homer brochure.
As success stories go, this was anything but a sure bet.
For one thing, it was all about Homer, the blind epic poet who hasn't been on anyone's "hot" list in recent centuries. Scholars can't even agree on who he was or if he even existed as advertised back in the seventh or eighth century B.C.
Reading aloud in a group, Hohwlein says, makes Homer more accessible and poignant. "In the presence of shared great art, you cannot help but learn something," she says.
The success of the readings is hardly an accident. Hohlwein's passion and knowledge, participants say, guarantee a special experience.
"She's quite an amazing creature," says Kathleen Lynch, a Sacramento writer and poet.
"She is one of those people who, when you meet them, you say, 'Oh, this is really somebody.' She has an enormous sense of empathy, a stunning intelligence and a mind that can work on 20 different levels at once."
Born and raised in Utah, Hohlwein was not an obvious candidate to become a college professor, much less someone whose life would be shaped by Homer. Her dad was an insurance salesman, her mother a pianist.
Though she had a gift for writing early on, Hohlwein didn't plow through books in her childhood.
She studied philosophy, English and dance at the University of Utah and did her graduate work at Middlebury College in Rutland, Vt., where she got to know the town's most famous resident, poet Robert Frost.
While studying in Europe through the Fulbright Scholar program, Hohlwein met the man she would marry, a German painter and printmaker who couldn't speak English. She couldn't speak German, so they conversed in French.
In three weeks, they were married. The couple had three children and divorced years later after moving to Sacramento in 1966 and taking jobs at Sacramento State.
Hohlwein began teaching Homer prior to that at the request of her boss when she was at Ohio State University. There was just one problem.
"I had never read Homer or taken a class," she says. "I just knew it was like the Bible -- you were supposed to know it."
But Homer soon became part of her life. Her lectures, she says, got better every year. At Sacramento State, Hohlwein eventually became known for her graduate-level seminar, "The Homeric Imagination," which was popular for years.
"I revere him because he's deep in history and the poems are so magnificently structured," she says.
These days, the public readings she began after leaving the university have taken on even more meaning for Hohlwein. The readings are of either the "Iliad" or the "Odyssey," never both in the same session.
"What I am doing with these readings is a kind of political activism," she said. (The 'Iliad') is an unflinching vision about the folly and brutality of war. Therefore, I think it is an anti-war poem."
Hohlwein is gearing up for two major readings overseas. The first will be on the Greek island of Chios where Homer -- if there really was such a man -- is said to be from. There will be two readings, one of each epic poem, over two weeks in August.
In October, she will host a daylong reading of the "Iliad" at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt.
For Hohlwein, it promises to be a long -- and epic -- second act.