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In Memoriam: Denise Gess

by Julia MacDonnell Chang
It is with great sadness that we report that our friend and long-time Philadelphia Stories board member, Denise Gess, passed away on August 22.

If you were writing Denise Gess as a character in a story, you would have to grapple with extremes, wrestle with contradictions. Such a marvelous alluring character! You might have trouble maintaining any kind of authorial distance. You might have trouble making her convincing.

First clue to her character, her looks:  Slender as a ballerina; strong as a python. Even past the half-century mark  (such a paltry amount of time, it now seems), Denise could slip into her Size 2 skinny jeans, pointy-toed high heels, her sunglasses, and demand attention by just walking into the room. ("Smokin'!" one Rowan grad student declared about her.) Dark brown hair, smart and fierce brown eyes, a generous mouth, a sodium vapor smile, a low rumbling laugh (a sleek train speeding from a well-lit tunnel) that came easily and often, promised to go on forever. Who couldn't pay attention? 

Denise had silky olive skin, a gift from her Sicilian ancestors, and she had a gorgeous clavicle, a creamy, unlined neck and throat. She worried that the part of her body she liked best would be forever scarred when the docs had to surgically insert a titanium catheter right there at the breast bone for the chemo, but she ended up loving the port, which rescued her from the puncture wounds of multiple IVs, the purple stains on her wrists and forearms after her first treatments.

Denise Gess, novelist, essayist, literary critic, a skilled and passionate writer in many genres, an editor of this magazine, a tenured associate professor at Rowan University. A list of accomplishments too long to list in this small space. Denise considered herself a Philadelphia writer -- a significant distinction since Philadelphia was not the city of her birth, but her chosen home, crucial, she once told me, to her wellbeing. She loved it. She could not live elsewhere. She'd have withered in the 'burbs. She knew; she'd tried it, she'd gotten out and did not go back.

Passionate, wise, intelligent, optimistic, witty, vivacious - qualities throughout Denise's life that fought to claim dominance, but only succeeded in a rare synergistic creation, a uniquely engaged and energetic  writer, teacher, woman. She was self-made, an anomaly in her close-knit family. She began her work life as a nurse, maintained until the end her lifelong fascination with and understanding of all things medical.

Denise was a voracious reader, a hungry learner, an astute identifier of talent, and a tireless promoter of others' work when she loved it, believed in it - her students and her writer friends. She once told me, however, that she hands-down loved being a mother even more than being a writer, could not have endured the rejections and frustrations of the literary life without the joys and satisfactions of motherhood, without her daughter to come home to.
Last September - Denise lived exactly one year after her diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer - I was with Denise for her last radiation treatment at HUP. The radiation targeted lesions on her brain, and for it, she'd been fitted with a custom radiation mask, a horrifying things of plastic and webbing to protect her face and neck from the killer rays pointed on those lesions. Afterward, she asked if she could keep it, and of course she could. It wouldn't do anyone else any good. That day, for lunch, she managed to down an egg and an English muffin. Then we went upstairs to the lady's cancer boutique to buy wigs since she'd soon be bald. Tucked beneath her arm was the odd sculpture, her radiation mask. Wall art, she told anyone who asked, and one or two who didn't. Everybody laughed, most of all Denise. The frightening mask was for her a talisman of what she could endure, what she would do for another shot at life.

Denise Gess, a woman of hemispheric contradictions --  a bone-thin foodie with the spirit of a shaman and the sharp, shiny, ever-working mind of an engineer, the exotic looks of an actress. A tireless toiler in the fields of literary writing, a well-published, though rarely applauded, writer. Yes, she loved applause, but understood that it didn't really matter. Not to her, anyway. She loved the writing process, loved writing, and knew that in the end, it was the writing itself, not the fame or glory it might garner, that mattered. She revered written language, and lived to put words down on the page, the sentences stretching out, one after the other, in an endless unbroken chain. Those of us who love her must light candles now in hope that her copious, yet-to-be-published work will find its way to print or cyberspace, so that we, and others, will be enriched by it.

Denise, darling friend and colleague, oh, writerly writer, you, you will not be missed, because you are here and will abide here, the words you spoke, and those you've written, woven deeply into the fabric of my life and the lives of all countless others you have touched.

Julia MacDonnell Chang, essay editor of Philadelphia Stories, teaches in the Writing Arts Program at Rowan University. She is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist and book reviewer with graduate degrees in journalism from Columbia University, and one in creative writing from Temple University.

Denise's essay on writing essays can be found here, and her terrific essay, Not Tony and Tina, can be found here.

In lieu of flowers, Denise's family requests donations to the National Lung Cancer Partnership at or to the Wissahickon Hospice, 150 Monument Rd., Suite 300, Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Denise Gess was my creative writing teacher for two semesters at Rowan in 2008. I had emailed her a few times after I graduated, not receiving any response. I didn't realize she had been sick and then passed away until the following year.

She was an incredible professor. Writers often fear they are not good enough... and Professor Gess, through her encouragement and support of my work, told me I was.

I am co-writing and querying a book now and think of her often as I work, wishing I could have her advice.

What you wrote was a perfect representation of her... and I can almost hear her through your words.

She was very special and I wish I could have had more of a relationship with her before she passed.



I am so sorry to learn Denise has walked on. My father is battling lung cancer as well. Both he and I are relations to Theresa Lawe-Place who was a survivor of the Peshtigo Firestorm.

Does anyone know who may possess her research material for the book "Firestorm at Peshtigo" which she authored ?

Thank you for your consideration.


I, too, took a class Denise taught at Temple, and it was one of the most enjoyable I had. She really helped me develop my voice, which was a crucial turning point for me. I'm grateful for her counsel, and I'm sorry she can't share it with anyone else.


I studied under Denise at Rutgers in the 90's and took her at home workshop several times. I used to call her my guru... Of all the writing the instructors I ever had she was the only one who wouldn't let me take the lazy way out. She was tough and sincere and fun, and one of the most beautiful people I ever met. I'm so sorry to learn that she is no longer with us. My condolences to her family and friends. Oh, Denise, you will be missed.


I had the honor of studying under her tutelage in the late 80's, and who could ever forget that smiling face? She was not only beautiful, she was very good at her trade, and she taught in a powerfully efficient way. At the time, she was still writing RWB, but never once mentioned "Good Deeds" in class. I only heard of the book from a fellow sitting next to me. That, my friends took class!

Last I remember is her telling the class that she would be soon getting married to Dr. Lutz, and how happy she was.

Love, Miss Gess, for you were still a miss then, and we surely miss you now.


My heart breaks at reading this news. For the longest time, I've tried to track her down all over the social networking scene. She was a former instructor of mine at Temple back in the day lol....between 1986-1990 to be exact. She was THE most amazing teacher, writer, person. She was funny as hell too. I often tried several times a year to go look for her. I wish I had the one last chance to say hi. I should have tried harder :(....Denise, thanks for being a great writer, great instructor, and great person. Thanks for inspiring us to be just as great. You will be sorely missed.


I took Fiction Writing Workshop from Denise back in my Rutgers days in the mid-80s. I was looking for her and some other profs on Facebook and came across this. Sincerest condolences to her friends and family.

Kevin Denelsbeck


I met Denise after she did a reading at CCP back in 2005, from her wonderful book Firestorm at Peshtigo. She was so vivacious, and during the wine-drinking afterward she strongly encouraged me to pursue my MFA in creative writing. Though I never met her again, I definitely credit her with helping me make the decision that has brought me to where I am today, teaching and writing. I didn't know she was sick and I was shocked to see this sad news this morning. My thoughts go out to her friends and family, and to all those who will never have the chance to be counseled by this wise woman.


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