Unearthing the Legacy of Katharine C. Turner, Philanthropist and Fossil Hunter

Our department remembers former English and Creative Writing Professor Katharine C. Turner largely for bequests in her name that continue to fund several prestigious department awards and recognitions: The Katharine Turner Dissertation Fellowship offers American literature doctoral candidates cash grants, tuition, and health insurance to aid them in completing their dissertations; The Katharine C. Turner Prize of the Academy of American Poets acknowledges outstanding poets in the MFA Creative Writing Program with cash awards and one-year memberships in the Academy; and the Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English recognizes excellence among department faculty and is presently held by Regents’ Professor and Arizona Poet Laureate, Alberto Ríos.

Little biographical information about Turner is available, but we do know that she graduated from the University of Michigan with an MA and PhD in American literature, completing her dissertation on the poetry of Richard Hovey. She joined the faculty of the ASU English Department in 1946, where she taught American literature and creative writing at least until the mid-1970s. Her first major published work, Red Men Calling on the Great White Father (1951) was unusual for its time in its critical approach to United States government policies toward Native American tribes in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.

A later work, Writing: The Shapes of Experience (1967), often served as a textbook in the creative writing courses Turner taught in the department in the 1970s. I was enrolled in several of these between 1975 and 1978. If memory serves, there were only two undergraduate classes in creative writing at the time, and I took them both. In addition to her 1967 handbook, we read several novels, including Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side, whose celebrated three rules of life ("Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.") offered sage guidance for my later expeditions into the urban underbelly of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Today, Turner's pedagogy might be thought of as out-of-date in a creative writing class. Filling the board with notes, she would lecture with little discussion and no group work, occasionally reading a student paper aloud in class—an honor we all vied for. I remember her as a wry, soft-spoken mentor, remarkably patient with my adolescent posturing and mediocre writing.

Turner told us little of her life outside of the university, but she did mention her fondness for hunting fossils in Northern Arizona, and the cryptic dedication to Red Men Calling on the Great White Father presents us with a poignant mystery regarding her past:

In memory of

Captain Robert Griggs Turner

whose plane crash, May 25, 1945, sent the author

to the Indians

One year later, Turner would join the Arizona State University English Department.

There is a brief obituary for Captain Robert Griggs Turner in The Michigan Alumnus, the journal of the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, where Turner did her graduate work. She is not mentioned.

Larry Ellis


Katharine Turner also compiled the first and only written history of ASU’s English department. Alumna and retired Instructor Jan Kelly (BAE 1978; MFA 1987) used Turner’s work to frame her history of ASU English published in the Spring-Summer 2015 Accents on English newsletter.

Image: Some Department of English faculty members, likely in the 1950s, from an ASU yearbook photo. Katharine C. Turner is seated on the far left. Back row, left to right are C.E. Southern, J.E. Zimmerman, and Fred C. Osenburg. Front row, left to right are Turner, Dana B. Burke, Mary V. Morris, and Collice Portnoff.