Remembering Professor Emerita Patricia Onion

For 34 years, she enriched communities with her scholarship, writing, and engagement

Patricia Onion, professor of English, emerita, in 1997. Onion taught on Mayflower Hill from 1974 to 2008 and passed away Nov. 12, 2023. (Copy photo by Gabe Souza/Colby College)
By Laura Meader
December 13, 2023

The Colby community remembers the vibrant life of Patricia Onion, professor of English, emerita, who taught on Mayflower Hill from 1974 to 2008. She was a trusted colleague and respected scholar equally beloved at Colby and in her local community. Onion passed away Nov. 12, 2023, in Cumberland Foreside, Maine. She was 80.

A Harvard-educated scholar of American literature, Onion taught a variety of courses at Colby and introduced the study of American Indian literature into the curriculum. At various times, she served as chair, associate chair, or co-chair of the English Department, assuming the leadership mantle to keep the department on a steady course during times of transition. Colleagues and students will miss her writing, wit, and genuine warmth.

A writer, poet, scholar, teacher, and community activist, she was the kind of person you could instinctively trust, said Cedric Bryant, the Lee Family Professor of English.

“From the moment that I met Pat, there was a kinship,” he said, reflecting on his first interactions with her when he joined the College in 1988. She asked to read some of his work in progress—a rare gesture, he noted—and left comments in the margins, in pencil. They developed a bond over their love of literature and had running conversations about that field of inquiry. 

“She was always very generous,” Bryant said. “But what I remember most was her intellectual, collegial generosity.”

Working to make things better

Onion came to Colby after teaching at the University of Washington and the University of Maine at Farmington. During her Colby career, she taught first-year writing and courses on the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, American literary history, and Shakespeare. Later, she taught courses on American Indian literature. She invited Indigenous artists, writers, and storytellers to campus, spent a sabbatical on the Blackfeet reservation, and built relationships with Penobscot Nation storytellers. In 1999 she developed a book discussion series on American Indian literature for the Maine Humanities Council.

Onion’s deep investment in American Indian culture and literature helped to sow the seeds for Colby’s current Critical Indigenous Studies Initiative, an interdisciplinary program that centers Indigenous scholarship and activism on campus and in Maine.

Members of Colby’s English Department gather for a group photo for the 1983 yearbook, the Oracle. At various times, Pat Onion (seated, second from left) served as chair, associate chair, or co-chair of the department. (Copy photo by Gabe Souza/Colby College)

A prolific writer, she published collections of poetry, essays, play reviews, and a mystery novel, Exit the Water, a semifinalist in the Malice Domestic contest, then sponsored by St. Martin’s Press.

“Pat believed in words and the power of words,” said Adrian Blevins, professor of English and creative writing. “She was old-school in the sense that she believed in the power of literature to transform us—to humanize us—and the world.

“Pat was not cynical in a world that was working to undermine or redefine everything from who’s in the curriculum (and who’s out) to what an English degree is even for,” continued Blevins. “Pat was hopeful about the world no matter how terrible it got. She was not hunched down in a corner somewhere, crying all about it. She was always working to make things better.”

Scholar, mother, and activist

Born Patricia Arnold in Auburn, N.Y., in 1943, Onion attended high school in Rutland, Vt., played clarinet in the band, acted in plays, and thrived in literature and writing. She earned a full scholarship to Connecticut College, where she obtained a bachelor’s in English in 1964. She continued her education at Harvard University, earning her master’s in 1965 and doctorate in 1969. A Phi Beta Kappa inductee, she was named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar and a Harvard Charles Downing Fellow.

In 1965 she married Dan Onion, and they moved to Seattle, where she taught courses on women in literature at the University of Washington. She participated in marches for peace and for women’s rights, and she helped establish a women’s center and an affordable cooperative daycare center.

The family moved to Farmington, Maine, in 1972. Pat Onion continued teaching, part time at the university there, while raising her children and supporting her husband, a much-loved family doctor who championed rural healthcare in central Maine. She would continue balancing work and home when she came to Colby in 1974.

Blevins and Onion connected over the difficulties of mothering and working. “She was very supportive of how hard that was on me,” said Blevins, who came to Colby in 2004 with three children, a son headed into college, a son starting high school, and a 4-year-old. “She supported everyone in the department, though. Not just me. She was the consummate diplomat. But she was not wishy-washy about it; she was genuine.”

Pat Onion in 2007. Her family described her as a woman “who relished going against the grain and who filled the space around her with intellect, creativity, humor, and warmth.” (Photo courtesy of the Onion family)

Onion fed her lifelong love of theater by helping to produce and act in community theater productions in Farmington and Vienna, where she eventually settled. She especially engaged with the Mt. Vernon/Vienna Winter Revels. She also presented lectures at libraries statewide, volunteered in the local food bank, and served in leadership roles in the stewardship organization for her area lake.

In her final years, Onion savored a weekly poetry workshop with her sister, children, and grandchildren, who remain to carry on her legacy. Surviving her are three children—Fritz, Amanda, and Alene—and their partners, five grandchildren, and two siblings.

“When I say that Pat Onion was a whole-souled person, a truly remarkable and remarkably generous colleague, I mean it,” said Bryant. “I miss her all the time.”

Community members are invited to a celebration of her life at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Yarmouth, Maine. Condolences may be expressed online.