Denise Piccoli Gess, 57, of Center City, a writer and associate professor at Rowan University, died of lung cancer Aug. 22 at Wissahickon Hospice in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Gess, who was the author of three published books, had taught fiction, nonfiction, and memoir writing at Rowan since 2003.
Julia Chang, a colleague at Rowan, said, "Denise blew the rest of us out of the water with her erudition and her work ethic. It's rare that a marvelous writer is an equally wonderful teacher."
Mrs. Gess had previously taught at Rutgers University in Camden.
"She was always a hit with creative-writing students - straight talking and incisively critical without ever being discouraging," said Lisa Zeidner, a professor at Rutgers-Camden and a longtime friend.
Mrs. Gess published her first novel, Good Deeds, in 1984 to very favorable reviews. The book's heroine, Dana, flees her Jewish hypochondriac father, long-suffering Irish Catholic mother, and violent brother and moves to a ramshackle house on Rodman Street in Philadelphia.
Though Mrs. Gess described herself to an Inquirer reporter as "a nice Italian girl from South Jersey," her writings often returned to Philadelphia neighborhoods, especially the South Philadelphia area where she lived until she was 3.
She grew up in Somerdale, graduated from Paul VI High School, and earned a bachelor's degree from La Salle University. She later earned a master's degree in English and creative writing from Rutgers University.
Mrs. Gess, who had written poems, plays, and short stories since childhood, studied nursing for a year and taught in South Jersey for several years before turning her attention to her writing career.
She taught creative-writing workshops in Philadelphia and was a visiting professor at Rutgers University and at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington before joining the faculty at Rowan. She was an editor and board member of the literary magazine Philadelphia Stories, where she published some personal essays, and was a frequent book reviewer for The Inquirer.
Her second book, Red Whiskey Blues, about a fictional Jersey Shore town, was published in 1989. Her third book was the nonfiction Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History. The book, which was written with her former husband William Lutz, and published in 2003, recounts the story of an 1871 blaze that destroyed the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wis.
Mrs. Gess was writing a book about cancer-patient care and working on several novels at the time of her death.
She is survived by a daughter, Austen Gess; her mother, Mary Piccoli; a sister; a brother; and her former husbands, William Lutz and Wayne Gess.
A memorial service will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at Rowan University Art Gallery, Westby Hall, Glassboro.
A tribute reading will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the City College of New York.