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Reynolds Price, author and Duke professor, dies

Reynolds Price, a long-time Duke University professor and award-winning writer whose novel "Kate Vaiden," received national acclaim, died Thursday after suffering a heart attack. He was 77.

Duke spokesman Keith Lawrence said Price died after he was stricken last Sunday.

A native of Macon, Price graduated summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, where he studied creative writing under William Blackburn, whose other Duke students included noted authors William Styron and Anne Tyler.

Price was a Rhodes Scholar and studied in Oxford, England. He returned to the United States and took a teaching job at Duke in 1958. He was warned that the position was for three years and there was no chance for an extension.

"That seemed a little discouraging, but I thought, 'Well, three years is three years,'" Price recalled in a 2008 interview. During those three years he wrote his first novel and was asked to stay on, which he did for the next 53 years.

In 1962, Price earned the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel for his book, "A Long and Happy Life." He published numerous books after that, including the novel "Kate Vaiden," which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986.

Considering himself an "outlaw" Christian, Price's 2007 book, "Letter to a Godchild," was a christening gift to his godson, intended as a brief guide for the child's spiritual future. He also published two biblical translations, "A Palpable God" (1978) and "The Three Gospels" (1996).

At Duke, Price taught courses on creative writing and the work of 17th-century English poet John Milton, as well as a course on the gospels in which students wrote their own version of a gospel story. Price's Halloween reading of ghost stories and poems became a tradition on campus that lasted more than a decade.

Price became confined to a wheelchair in 1984 when a cancerous tumor affecting his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the waist down.

In a 2006 article in The News & Observer of Raleigh, it was noted that Price had pondered and accepted that God's ways are often beyond understanding or finding out, as written in the Book of Job.

"The fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by 25 X-ray treatments ... was a mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life," he said. Price's account of cancer survival is captured in his 2003 book, "A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing."

Price's third volume of memoir, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back," was published in 2009. The book explores six crucial years in Price's life, from leaving home in 1955 to attend Oxford University to his return to North Carolina and the start of his career as a university teacher.

"With a poet's deep appreciation for language, Reynolds Price taught generations of students to understand and love literature," said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. "Reynolds was a part of the soul of Duke; he loved this university and always wanted to make it better. We can scarcely imagine Duke without Reynolds Price."

At Price's request, there will be no public funeral. The school has not yet announced plans to honor Price.

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