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Otto Salassi (1939–1993)

Otto Russell Salassi was a librarian and writer best known for the young-adult novel Jimmy D., Sidewinder, and Me (1987). Salassi attended and worked at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and lived in Fayetteville from 1974 until his death.

Otto Salassi was born on October 2, 1939, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Walter Salassi and Ruby Lee Salassi. He served in the U.S. Air Force and worked as a mathematician at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before attending Memphis State University, where he was awarded a BS in English and philosophy in 1967. He earned an MLS from Vanderbilt University in 1968 and worked as a librarian first at Bemidji State College in Minnesota (where he hosted a camera club in his home), then at Motlow State Community College in Tennessee, and then at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York.

Salassi moved to Arkansas in 1974 and enrolled at the University of Arkansas, where he pursued his MFA (which he was awarded in 1978) and taught creative writing courses as a graduate student. His graduate thesis committee was composed of three notable Arkansan writers: William Neal Harrison, James Whitehead, and Miller Williams. Following his graduation, he worked for several years as a librarian at UA’s Mullins Library. In 1979, he began writing full time.

Salassi is best known for his three young-adult novels. His first, On the Ropes (1981), involved a family’s attempts at running a wrestling college in small-town Texas; it was nominated for an award by the Western Writers of America and designated the best book of spring 1981 by the School Library Journal. His next book, And Nobody Knew They Were There (1984), a mystery-adventure, featured two teens’ search for marines on a clandestine march across the southwest. Jimmy D., Sidewinder, and Me (1987), an epistolary novel told through the voice of a fifteen-year-old prisoner, was named one of the year’s best books for young adults by the American Library Association (ALA) and was nominated for the Iowa Teen Award. Salassi’s novels feature the South of the 1940s and 1950s and have been compared to the writings of Mark Twain for their regionalism, humor, and offbeat characters. All of his novels were published with Greenwillow Books, a children’s book imprint of HarperCollins; the first two were also adapted for publication in Boys’ Life magazine. It was the success of On the Ropes that led Salassi to find his niche in children’s literature, according to Miller Williams, but Salassi also wrote a sports column for the Grapevine and published in magazines, including the New Orleans Review and Southern Humanities Review.

In 1963, Salassi married Margaret Buchanan. A poet, she attended UA’s creative writing program alongside her husband and was a close friend of fellow Arkansas writer Ellen Gilchrist. The Salassis had two children, Adam and Paul. Otto Salassi died of liver disease on February 10, 1993, in Fayetteville.

For additional information:
Amster, Mara Ilyse. “Salassi, Otto.” In Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995.

“Local Author, Salassi, Dies at 53.” Northwest Arkansas Times, February 12, 1993, pp. 1A, 10A.

“Otto R(ussell) Salassi (1939–).” Something About the Author, Vol. 38, edited by Anne Commire. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Wilson, Amy. “Writer Finds ‘One’s Destiny’ Leads to an Unsettling Height.” Northwest Arkansas Times, May 27, 1984, p. 16C.

Katrina Windon
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated 5/11/2017

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