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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

Retired classics professor known for bravery and ‘rare talent’ in teaching

Lucy Turnbull, retired Classics professor and director of the University Museum, has made a difference in the lives of many.

In 1961 Turnbull joined the Classics department as a classical archaeologist and taught art history, archaeology, mythology and classical civilization.

“Teaching is very energizing, but I didn’t really understand that at the time,” she said. “When you’re teaching you’re giving something to the students, but they’re also giving back to you. I enjoyed it very much.”

Aileen Ajootian, chair of the Department of Classics, praises Turnbull’s teaching talents.

“Dr. Turnbull has the ability to explain complicated issues and concepts about the ancient Mediterranean world in a way that does not trivialize them but makes them clear even to beginning students,” Ajootian said. “She can then build on the basic outline to introduce the problems and uncertainties. Also, she can knit together the evidence, which in Classics and Classical Archaeology is interdisciplinary.  And she has the rare talent to keep the material interesting and appealing. Dr. Turnbull has a dry sense of humor that undoubtedly enlivened her lectures and discussions. She amassed a large collection of articles and images from all kinds of magazines and newspapers in an era before smart phones and computers. These materials—which we still preserve—she used to illustrate her points.”

Turnbull was an active proponent of civil rights during UM’s integration in 1962 when James Meredith became the first African-American student.

“After the immediate crisis of Meredith’s enrollment, the university was under some fire,” Turnbull said. “For the next two years, there was a lot of tension and also a lot of alumni over-interest in how the university was functioning. The worst that happened to me during that time was someone threw a cherry bomb at my feet. Thankfully, I wasn’t injured.”

Provost Emeritus Gerald Walton was a colleague in those tempestuous days.

“The fall of 1962, I became an assistant professor and a member of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors,” Walton said. “We had frequent meetings and Lucy was elected as our secretary. Actually we met more often than usual, for one of our concerns was keeping the university open and accredited after a riot occurred because James Meredith had been admitted to the university. Those of us who supported integration became a kind of fraternal group and talked among ourselves a good deal. It was good to learn that Lucy was one who did not mind speaking her mind even though we weren’t sure in those days how such people as board of trustees members or legislators—or members of the Ole Miss administration for that matter—might act. Lucy was a brave woman.”

Fifty years later others commend her courage.

“She is one of the few people on campus who was brave enough to speak with James Meredith when he was a student,” Ajootian said. “Dr. Turnbull quietly worked for justice during the Civil Rights period and beyond. I am proud to be her colleague in Classics.”

Turnbull’s active role in campus culture included helping establish the UM Museum where she served as director from 1983 until 1990.

“One of my most memorable moments was the opening of the University Museum,” Turnbull said. “The old Mary Buie was the only museum in the vicinity at that time. I served on the museum committee. The classics department had a great collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and we moved the collection of antiquities from Bondurant Hall to the new museum. ”

Turnbull’s students have fond memories.

“As a highly respected, stellar professor of classics, Dr. Lucy Turnbull possessed a phenomenal knowledge of her subject; and her classroom was always a place where students were treated with dignity and gained an appreciation of the joy of learning,” said Freda Knight, a friend of Turnbull’s who took two courses from her.

Turnbull was educated at Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe. She was both John Williams White Fellow and Charles Eliot Norton Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and author of many scholarly articles and contributions to books, chiefly in the fields of Greek vase painting, mythology and Greek poetry.