William Stafford was born to Ruby Mayher and Earl Stafford in Hutchinson, Kansas on January 17, 1914, the oldest of three children. The family moved frequently during the Great Depression as Earl Stafford searched for work. Meanwhile, William helped the family by delivering newspapers, working in agriculture, and as an electrician's helper.
After graduating high school in Liberal, Kansas, he attended junior college before graduating from the University of Kansas in 1937. Stafford began work in a master's program in English at Kansas but was drafted before he could get his degree after the United States entered World War II. Instead of entering the military, he registered as a pacifist and worked in conscientious objector camps and projects in several states from 1942 to 1946. While working in California, he met and married Dorothy Frantz, with whom he had four children.
After the war, Stafford taught in a high school for a year, worked for a relief organization, and completed his master's degree at the University of Kansas in 1947. His master's thesis was published in 1948 and described his experiences in the conscientious objector camps.
He began his career in earnest by moving to Portland in 1948 to teach at Lewis & Clark College. In 1954 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. After brief stints teaching at colleges in Indiana and California, Stafford returned to Lewis & Clark College in 1958, where he taught until his retirement in 1980.
Stafford's first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award in 1963. He published more than 65 poetry and prose volumes during his writing career. A prolific writer, he kept a daily journal for 50 years. He also wrote nearly 22,000 poems, of which about 3,000 were published. His best-known books include The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).
According to the Academy of American Poets, "Stafford's poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost's, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination. James Dickey, writing in his book Babel to Byzantium, notes that Stafford's 'natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States.'"
Stafford was named Oregon Poet Laureate in 1975. He served in that position until 1990.
William Stafford died in Lake Oswego on August 28, 1993. His son, Kim Stafford, is an important writer in his own right.
(Sources: Poets.org | Friends of William Stafford | Oregon Encyclopedia | Wikipedia)