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Pioneering UC Davis Professor Emerita Celeste Turner Wright Dies

By Susanne Rockwell on September 17, 1999 in

Spirited, pioneering professor emerita Celeste Turner Wright -- the first tenured woman faculty member at the University of California, Davis -- died Thursday, Sept. 16, of cancer. She was 93.

Wright leaves a legacy that includes the development of the campus's humanities curriculum, a theater building named after her, a poetry contest she created and countless students who benefited from her academic fervor.

"Few faculty colleagues have so fully expressed the history, the values, and the hopes of UC Davis," says UC Davis Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef. "Celeste Turner Wright was a pioneer in women's search for professional recognition in the academy, an untiring advocate of the humanities and a person who never missed an opportunity to strengthen our community bonds. We will miss her greatly, but she has left us an indelible legacy."

Wright came to the campus in 1928 as a 22-year-old hired to teach and, in her words, to "be a refining influence on the farm boys." She held a doctorate in English from UC Berkeley as she began what would be a 51-year academic career.

She taught English, Latin, German and dramatic arts, along the way staking claim to numerous "firsts," including first woman faculty member with a Ph.D., first tenured woman faculty member, first campus drama instructor, first humanities professor to receive a campus Faculty Research Lecturer award and one of the first campus women to have a building named after her.

She chaired the English department from 1928-34, chaired the Division of Languages and Literature from 1934-52 and chaired the Department of English, Dramatic Art and Speech from 1952-55.

She arrived at a fledgling campus -- known then as the University Farm annex of UC Berkeley -- that had 350 students, eight of whom were women; she was one of two English department faculty members. She retired in 1979 from an English department of 20 professors, and a university with three professional schools and 20,000 students. Today, the campus has more than 25,000 students and four professional schools.

From the moment Wright came to UC Davis until many years after her retirement, she immersed herself in campus life. She lived in the dorms as a young professor, married one of her students, directed more than 15 plays, created and endowed a poetry prize, helped establish a Davis chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and even as recently as 1998, repeated a turn as a Picnic Day marshal, having done so previously in 1975.

In 1997, Wright spoke and read from her poems during the dedication ceremony of the UC Davis dramatic art building as Celeste Turner Wright Hall. In "University Woman: The Memoir of Celeste Turner Wright," in her characteristic candid manner, she talked of her theater production work. "I still look back at my productions -- about 10 full-length plays and the same number of one acts -- with considerable pride. The only problem was to guide the students away from trash: Instead of 'The First Year' they wanted something called 'Broken Dishes.'"

Wright is recognized for her scholarship on English Renaissance literature. Her 1940 study of Amazonian women in the age of Shakespeare is still referred to by scholars today, says former UC Davis English department chair Karl Zender.

After becoming a tenured faculty member, Wright began pursuing her poetry passion. She went on to write several books of poems, including "A Sense of Place," which won a Commonwealth Club of California medal as one of the best books of 1973. Most of her poems were about her connection to place: "I write about my emotional response to place," Wright has said.

To encourage aspiring undergraduate poets, Wright created and eventually endowed the annual Celeste Turner Wright Poetry Prize, conducted under the auspices of the Academy of American Poets.

Wright's candid, witty and engaging personality, as well as her unwavering dedication to teaching, research and campus service, endeared her to many.

"Celeste was a remarkable person. When I arrived on campus almost 20 years ago, she was in her last year before retirement, but she continued for many years to take an active and supportive role in my professional life -- as she did with so many of my colleagues," says Peter Dale, UC Davis vice provost for undergraduate studies and English professor.

"I never left a conversation with her without a sense of wonder at the vitality of her intellect and the depth of her care for others. The story of her long, long career and many friendships will be one of the campus' enduring legends."

UC Davis English professor Peter Hays remembers Wright from his earliest days on campus in the 1960s.

"She's a very fine poet. And she's an absolutely superb editor. I once had her read one of my research papers. I gave it to her simply to have her look at the Shakespeare content, and she treated it as a writing assignment! She corrected my writing and turned it back to me with more red marks than I would ever give to a student of freshman comp!" Hays recalls.

Wright excelled as a scholar, Hays says. "She has the classic essay on Renaissance imagery in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' which scholars today still refer to.

"She took a great interest in the health and welfare of the English department. Interestingly, we speak of gender equality and hiring today, but when I came to English, she was one of four strong women in the department. Her primary legacy to the campus is the humanities. She was the sole humanist for many years."

Wright was born in Maine and, as a teenager, moved with her family to Pasadena. She graduated from what is now known as UCLA with an A.B. and "highest honors." She received her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley.

Wright is survived by her husband, Vedder Allen Wright, and son, Vedder Allen Wright, Jr., of the Boston area.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, 640 Hawthorn Lane, Davis. The church can be contacted at (530) 756-0444.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Yolo County Hospice, P.O. Box 1014, Davis, CA, 95617, or, to the Celeste Turner Wright Memorial Fund in the UC Davis English department, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA, 95616 (check payable to UC Davis Foundation).

Media contact(s)

Susanne Rockwell, Web and new media editor, (530) 752-2542,