Appreciating Tom TurgeonGAMBIER, Ohio (January 11, 2013)
Thomas Snyder Turgeon, professor emeritus and an active faculty member in the Department of Dance, Drama, and Film from 1972 to 2008, died at his home near Gambier on Wednesday night. At seventy years old, he had long suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
"The passing of Tom Turgeon is a sad event indeed for Kenyon," said President S. Georgia Nugent. "For generations of students and colleagues, Tom played a crucial role in fostering the College's uniquely rigorous - and extraordinarily successful - approach to the teaching of theater. The success of Kenyon drama students is no accident; it is due, in large part, to the clear vision, intellectual range, and compassionate heart that marked Tom Turgeon's teaching."
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on August 8, 1942, Tom Turgeon was a son of Charlotte Snyder Turgeon, a noted cookbook author and cooking teacher, and Frederick King Turgeon, a professor at Amherst College.
Tom graduated from Amherst in 1964, magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. With a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, he went on to study at Yale University, where he earned a D.F.A. in 1968. He then taught for four years at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington).
In the fall of 1972, Tom arrived at Kenyon as an assistant professor of drama. He joined a department that already included the legendary James Elder Michael and the soon-to-be-legendary Harlene Marley. Together, they and their colleagues created a singularly effective program that remains one of Kenyon's best-known assets.
Tom and his family quickly settled into the Kenyon and Gambier communities. In 1980, he was honored by being asked to deliver that year's Founders' Day Address. He won promotion to full professor in 1988 and published a book, Improvising Shakespeare: Reading for the Stage, which presents actors' and directors' approaches to reading dramatic texts, in 1996.
The many plays Tom directed at Kenyon include (but are not limited to) Jean Anouilh's Becket (1976) and The Rehearsal (1978); Alan Ayckbourn's Round and Round the Garden (1982); Brendan Behan's The Hostage (1973); Noel Coward's Hay Fever (1980); Frank Dunlop and Jim Dale's Scapino! (1982); Euripides' Trojan Women (1995); Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear (1974); Michael Frayn's Noises Off (1991); Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1993); Pierre de Marivaux's The Legacy, The Gossip, and The Isle of Reason (1985), and Little White Lies (2007); Wendy MacLeod's The My House Play (1989); Moliere's The Misanthrope (1987), The Hypochondriac (1990), and Don Juan (2001); Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1986); Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones's The Fantasticks (2002); William Shakespeare's Macbeth (1991), The Taming of the Shrew (1985), Twelfth Night (1976 and 2005); George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man (1993); Larry Shue's The Foreigner (1987); Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1979); Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1989) and Travesties (2007); David Storey's Home (1979); Brandon Thomas's Charley's Aunt (1986); and a 1984 production of Clytemnestra that he adapted from the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles.
Tom also performed on Kenyon stages, creating memorable portraits in a variety of roles. He was Robert in a 1985 production of David Mamet's A Life in the Theater, Iago opposite fellow professor Jon Tazewell's title character in William Shakespeare's Othello, and one of the two tuxedo-clad gentlemen in Roderick Cook's musical revue Oh, Coward! Perhaps most memorably, he played George to his longtime colleague Harlene Marley's Martha in a 1987 production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
For many years, Tom was a regular member of the summer-stock company at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont. In addition to handling the duties of associate director, he appeared in numerous plays, taking on such roles as Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Ben Franklin in 1776, and Felix Unger in The Odd Couple.
In April 2007, Tom was presented with the College's Trustee Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes those faculty members who are judged by their students and colleagues to be outstanding exemplars of their profession. On June 1 of that same year, Kenyon announced the creation of the Thomas S. Turgeon Professorship in Drama, an endowed chair funded by several of Tom's former students.
The first incumbent of the professorship, installed in 2008, is Jonathan E. Tazewell '84, Tom's former student who joined the dance, drama, and film faculty in 1997. "Tom was one of my great mentors and teachers," Tazewell said. "He was famous for his adaptations of French farce plays. My experiences with him as teacher, collaborator, and friend were wonderful. As a teacher, he was brilliant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of theater history, which seemed to be at his fingertips. He didn't have to go search for the material."
Tazewell also remembered one of Tom's favorite bits of theatrical business, which was recounted in detail by Robert Davis '81 in a 2007 article in the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin: "Tom was lecturing on the Commedia dell'arte and suddenly broke into the lazzi of the fly. A lazzi is a little piece of dramatic action, a comic bit. In mid-lecture, Tom started following an imaginary fly around the classroom with his eyes. It started as a small annoyance and climaxed with Tom chasing around the room, red in the face, utterly absorbed in trying to squash the bothersome fly. Besides sending all of us into hysterics, it was the kind of teaching moment when everything comes together - the word was made flesh. It was a . . . mesmerizing performance. Simple and silly as it was, it remains for me a pure example of what live theater can do. It also reminded all of us that the really bright guy up in front not only knew what he was talking about, he could also do it. His street cred jumped dramatically."
In an interview published in the New York Times in 2000, Allison Janney '82, who had already won an Emmy Award and earned a Tony nomination, credited Tom with much of her success. "The most important lesson I learned in acting," she said, "was from my college professor, Tom Turgeon, who told me, 'You need to listen more.' It's so much more fun to do it that way - to really listen to the person you're acting with."
Another student, Josh Radnor '96, star of television's "How I Met Your Mother" and writer, director, and a lead actor for the recent movie Liberal Arts, recalled his classes in theater history with Tom. "Those classes were the opposite of boring," he said. "They were riveting and revelatory. Tom knew everything about everything, and he taught with such joy that it was a uniquely joyful experience to learn from him. He connected the dots from the birth of the theater all the way to our work on Bolton and Hill theater stages, and he helped me feel that a life in the theater could be a deeply noble one. I'll remember his impish grin, his warm smile and easy laugh, his Buddha belly, his corduroy pants. He was the beau ideal (some French seems appropriate) of the college professor. I'm forever grateful to have studied with him, and I'll miss him deeply."
Tom retired from the faculty in 2008, having been stricken several years earlier by ALS. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts at that year's Commencement, with a citation by Professor Emerita of Drama Harlene Marley that read, in part, "It was in rehearsal and in the classroom that you embodied the best that Kenyon has to offer its students - exploring a discipline with rigor and imagination, asking hard questions, valuing the absurd."
On the occasion of Tom's retirement, Wendy MacLeod '83, a former student of and drama faculty colleague to Tom, sent him what she termed a "mushy" letter. "You are fundamentally kind and generous about other people, while remaining clear-eyed and ready to have a chuckle over them," wrote Kenyon's James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence. "It's always a comfort to have you around because I know that you're seeing whatever I'm seeing, and probably more. I always trusted your counsel about students, or colleagues, or who to hire. You were always able to see past personality issues to larger issues of process and understanding."
In a valedictory written when he heard of Tom's death, another drama faculty colleague, Andrew Reinert, noted that he had "missed Tom awfully since his retirement." He went on to write, "Tom was always more interested in the world around him than he was in himself. We shared a love of cooking, and of broad, silly comedy, but what mattered most to me was that Tom was receptive to whatever interest fired my mind on any given day. It didn't much matter what the subject was: my curiosity seemed to entertain and delight him. In a world of false, stubborn pronouncements, a passion for questions can be a lifesaver. Tom saved my life routinely."
Jon Huberth, who had known Tom since their college years at Amherst, and whose daughter Eliza Huberth '08 was a student of Tom's at Kenyon, said, "Tom was my best friend. He was a man who was devoted to his family and the entire Turgeon clan, and he was a man devoted to theater. He spent much of his life teaching all the right things to his students - things that would stand them in good stead if they had they the notion to pursue a life of theater or even a life of meaning wherever they went. He was critical if students didn't apply themselves, but he was not judgmental. He wanted others to succeed in life, and, as a result, he succeeded in life himself. My daughter learned much from Tom at Kenyon, and I, too, learned much from him throughout my entire adult life. A gentle soul passes on and will be missed."
Tom and his wife, Margaret "Peggy" Guilmette Turgeon, a counselor and social worker who is also one half of the locally renowned catering team of "Joyce (Klein) and Peggy," were presented with the Thomas B. and Mary M. Greenslade Award at Kenyon's annual Alumni Awards Luncheon in 2006. The award honored them for their decades of commitment to both the ideal and the reality of community at Kenyon and in Gambier.
Tom is survived by his wife and their two children, Sarah M. Turgeon of the Class of 1989, a professor of psychology at Amherst who is married to Fredrick Perry, and Charles G. Turgeon of the Class of 1993, an investment analyst who is married to Rosemary Torrisi Turgeon of the Class of 1993. Other survivors include a brother, Charles Turgeon; a sister, Nan Turgeon White, and her husband, Steven White; and six grandchildren, Alexander, Thomas, and Evan Perry and Charles, Elizabeth, and Charlotte Jane Turgeon.
Funeral arrangements are being made by the Snyder Funeral Home in Mount Vernon. There will be no calling hours, but a memorial service will take place in Gambier's Church of the Holy Spirit at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 2, 2013.