Celeste Turner Wright (1906-1999) was an active member of the UC Davis community for more than 51 years, from the time she came to the campus, then the University Farm in 1928, until after her retirement in 1979. She died of cancer on September 16, 1999. For 27 of these 51 years, she chaired the Division of English (1928-34), the Division of Languages and Literature (1934-52), and the Department of English, Dramatic Art and Speech (1952-1955). In that time she taught English, Latin, German, and drama, in addition to being “a refining influence” (her words) for the farm boys at what was in 1928 the agricultural branch of UC Berkeley, the Farm annex.
She was born in New Brunswick, Canada, there being no hospital in her home town of Kenio, Maine, on St Patrick's Day and educated in a three-student school. She entered high school at 11 and moved with her family to Pasadena in 1918; she graduated from Pasadena High in 1921. She then attended the Southern Branch of the University of California, a two-year school that added an upper division while she was a student and became UCLA. She graduated at 19, then went to Berkeley, earning a master's degree and a Ph.D. in three years.
Arriving at Davis, Professor Wright achieved many firsts. She was the first woman with a Ph.D. to become a faculty member, the first woman to be tenured, the first teacher of Latin, German, and public speaking, the first drama instructor, the first humanities professor to be honored as Faculty Research Lecturer, and the only woman to have an academic building named after her. The UC
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Davis Dramatic Arts Building was named Celeste Turner Wright Hall on October 9, 1997, celebrating her long commitment to drama, including her dissertation and first book, Anthony Mundy: An Elizabethan Man of Letters, about a playwright, her many years of teaching Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, and her founding of the Drama Department and early directing of the first plays produced on campus. Beyond these, the subjects of her scholarly articles ranged from Amazons in literature to Wallace Stevens, Katherine Mansfield, and a classic article on Renaissance imagery in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. For many years, humanities at UC Davis and Celeste Turner Wright were synonymous.
In 1928, her salary was $2,400. Since that was not enough to live on, although she initially lived in the dorm on campus with the students (there were 350, eight of whom were women), she accepted a job editing agricultural publications during the summers and developed into a highly skilled editor. Many of her colleagues submitted their work to her for her scrutiny. One commented that the essay he received back was literally bleeding with red ink, then admitted that Professor Wright's editing had substantially improved the essay.
Professor Wright was a marvelously engaged teacher and colleague, even after her retirement, participating in department meetings and hiring discussions. When other women joined the faculty, she would make a particular effort to draw them into campus life and would introduce them to others with a keen sense of their talents and expertise. In the later years of her life, her heart was with poetry. In addition to placing many individual poems in well-regarded poetry journals, and even having her poems appear as illustrations of technique in textbooks, she published three books of her own poetry, Etruscan Princess and Other Poems (1964), A Sense of Place (1973), and Seasoned Timber (1977). A Sense of Place, which exhibits her fine gift for capturing both the history and emotion of a landscape, won a Commonwealth Club of California medal as one of the best books of 1973. As an enduring legacy to the English Department, which she founded 72 years ago, she began the Celeste Turner Wright Poetry Contest in 1979. Open to all students enrolled at UC Davis, with prizes for the best poems submitted, she endowed it permanently with her own money in 1994; it is now sponsored annually by the American
Poetry Society. In her honor, the Department of English will sponsor an annual reading by a distinguished creative writer.
Professor Wright is survived by her husband, Veddar Wright, whom she married in 1933, and their son, Vedder Jr., born in 1943. She will be missed as an exemplar of one who undertook tasks early and did them well, and as a model teacher, poet, and colleague.
(Linda Morris, Peter Hays, Marijane Osborn)