Theodore J. Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939. His parents, Theodore B. Kooser and Vera (Moser) Kooser, both Iowa natives, met while working in a dry goods store in Ames. Kooser married Diana Tressler in 1962, but they divorced in 1969. The couple had one son, Jeff. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English education at Iowa State University, Kooser entered graduate school at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to study with the university’s resident poet Karl Shapiro.
Kooser would earn his master’s degree in 1968, but before graduation, he lost a university fellowship award and was forced to find a way to support himself. He became an underwriter and later a vice president of the Lincoln Benefit Life Company, where he worked until his retirement in 1999. During his years as an insurance executive, Kooser developed a habit of rising early to compose his poetry before work—a discipline he has maintained even after his retirement.
Kooser’s early poetry first appeared in brief volumes produced by small literary presses. Eventually, several literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Prairie Schooner began to feature his poems. In 1977, Kooser married Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. His collection Sure Signs, published in 1980, attracted national attention. In the late 1990’s, while recovering from treatment for oral cancer, Kooser began writing postcard-size poems to his friend Jim Harrison. The poems became the basis for his collection Winter Morning Walks.
Kooser’s books on writing reflect his desire to inspire other literary voices. He has regularly given poetry readings and conducted workshops; during his tenure as poet laureate, he made approximately two hundred public appearances across the United States. Also while poet laureate, Kooser initiated a project, American Life in Poetry, sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress, to give poetry a continued presence within American culture and showcase the works of contemporary poets. Each week, the project has featured a column presenting a poem by a contemporary American poet, which may be reproduced at no charge by newspapers and online publications. In 2005, he was named Presidential Professor by the University of Nebraska.