Professor marks 60 years at Morgan

September 08, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

At 7:59 a.m. yesterday, Dr. Jean F. Turpin stood in front of 17 students in a freshmen English class at Morgan State University and began her 60th year of teaching at the school.

The time of day was important. It has always been important to Dr. Turpin. Over the decades, students have learned not to come late to her classes, and her lesson has sometimes begun as much as five minutes early.

Perhaps as a sign she's mellowed over the years, Dr. Turpin waited a few minutes for stragglers yesterday before starting class after she greeted the students who were seated on time.

The latecomers -- many of whom were attending a college class for the first time -- got the "Turpin stare" when they entered the classroom.

"I think they know I mean business and won't do it again," said Dr. Turpin, a small, stern figure who has taught grammar, writing and a touch of etiquette to generations of Morgan students.

"I've always meant business."

Since she began teaching at Morgan, Dr. Turpin has served under eight college presidents, and she has taught there longer than any other faculty member in Morgan's 127-year history.

Dr. Earl S. Richardson, Morgan's president since 1984, called Dr. Turpin a great person "as well as a great teacher."

"She's been a confidante to students as well as to presidents and deans," Dr. Richardson said.

The Turpin style of teaching has always meant students came prepared to class, followed even the most minute details of assignments and were prompt. If a student had another agenda, he or she simply didn't belong in Dr. Turpin's class.

"I tell them, 'Don't hand in a bad paper and intend for me not to pay any attention to it.' I'd be insulted," she said. "They don't belong in college if they have a hard time following instructions or being mature. I'm teaching adults."

For example, at yesterday's class she didn't give an introductory lesson the way many instructors do, but launched into a lecture on how to write an outline for a class paper.

A young man entered late, and he was wearing a red baseball cap -- two automatic strikes for a Turpin class. Dr. Turpin stared at the somewhat embarrassed student until he removed the cap, TC then asked, "Do you belong in this class?"

"Yes," the student answered.

Dr. Turpin stared at her watch for several seconds and the young man took his seat. Her point was made.

"Just like the students, I get a certain thrill on the first day of class. All this material is new to them and I enjoy teaching it," she said. "I think we get along pretty well."

A graduate of Baltimore's public school system, Dr. Turpin enrolled at Morgan State in 1927 as an English major with a minor in music. She graduated four years later. She obtained a master's degree at Howard University and returned to Morgan as an English professor in 1934.

After she returned to Morgan, she also accompanied the school's choir on the organ, which she still enjoys playing.

"I never wanted to teach anywhere else. This is where I should be. This is home," she said.

While a student at Morgan, she met Waters Turpin, her future husband. He later became chairman of the school's Division of Humanities, and she became associate professor. He died in 1968.

Only during the first class she taught at Morgan did she feel some nervousness and anxiety. Those feelings wore off quickly, however.

"When you know your subject, you're not scared, you're confident," she said.

In 1981, Dr. Turpin retired from full-time teaching duties. However, she was soon called by the university and asked to teach on a part-time basis. Shortly after her return, she was asked to serve as English Department chairman. "I was home minding my own business," she said. "They called and said put your shoes on and come back."

Burney Hollis, a former student of Dr. Turpin's who is now dean of Morgan's College of Arts and Sciences, said Dr. Turpin is always thoroughly prepared and a motivation for her students.

"She has a dedication to the students and to the university itself," Dr. Hollis said. "She follows the philosophy that Morgan time is five minutes ahead of everybody else's time."

Dr. Hollis said he once walked out of Dr. Turpin's grammar class when she said those who thought they knew the lesson could leave. She invited him to teach the class when it next met. "I did it and I did it superb," Dr. Hollis said. "I don't know if she was surprised or not."

Before he became dean, Dr. Hollis served as English Department chairman, the former student the direct superior of his teacher.

"But she made it easy for me. Never did she respond negatively to anything I asked of her," Dr. Hollis said. "She was more proud of me than I was when I became department chairman. She's a joy to have around."

Bobi Simms, a student in yesterday's freshman English class, said she doesn't mind attending Dr. Turpin's class -- even if it does meet at 8 a.m.

"I realize I can spend all day in her class. She's very dramatic," Ms. Simms said. "It goes to show that you're as young as you feel or as old as you feel. I've met all of my teachers, but she's the one I spoke of when I went home."

Dr. Turpin's secret for her teaching longevity is simple: A job is never hard if you enjoy it, have energy for it and are successful in doing it.

"The school seems to like me and appreciate me, which makes it good," she said. "I think I've been a good teacher -- and I'm never late or absent."

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