UTA English Obituary: Simone Turbeville

Simone Turbeville, who died on 27 December 2009, was a long-time Associate Professor in the English Department at UTA – though it’s a measure both of the ephemerality of life and the huge turnover here in the past decade that few reading this obituary will remember her. It’s important to mark such passings – maybe more important to mark them than those of academics who get awards or professorships or buildings named after them.

Simone Turbeville taught at UTA for over 40 years. It doesn’t violate the principle of nil nisi bonum to say that Simone was a difficult colleague. In fact, if I were to write that her tenure here was one of sweetness and light, she would read that, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and say “Hmnph!” or words to that effect. No, Simone was a difficult colleague. She feuded endlessly with everybody over the most minor issues, leading one of our colleagues to muse that academic disputes are so very bitter because there is so very little at stake. Simone complained incessantly about her working conditions (something I of course would never do). She was easily and monumentally offended, and her character note was how little the world appreciated her. When she won the Gertrude Golladay Award for teaching in 1999, she remarked, “Too little, too late.”

Still, though she spent about ten of our 13 years as colleagues not speaking to me for one reason or another, it was impossible to stay mad at Simone forever. You always had the sense that if she took everything too bitterly, she chose the right things to be bitter about. Simone had a formidable education. She earned a PhD from Bocconi University in her native Milan in 1951 (a date that doesn’t square with her being born in the 1930s, as her obituary claims; much about her will remain mysterious). Upon arriving in the United States, she was told by somebody that a “foreign” doctorate wouldn’t cut it in America. So she set about earning a second doctorate, from Indiana University. Simone was thus one of the few people I’ve ever met to have two earned PhDs – real PhDs from major research universities, not a European summer school where you direct your own dissertation, or the On-Line University of Nowhere, or something like that.

Simone’s field was comparative literature of the Renaissance. She helped edit the journal Allegorica for much of its existence. She taught the high canon from Dante to Thomas Mann. She was fanatically opposed to literary theory of any description. (It was one of Simone’s students who, upon starting one of my theory courses, announced to the class “I don’t want theory. I just want facts.”) If you picture her as a bristling reactionary, you are of course half right. But Simone could surprise you. Her courses in literature and opera were in an interdisciplinary mode that became fashionable again just at the end of her career. She read feverishly, always adding contemporary authors to her syllabuses: when I met her in the late 1980s, she was into Umberto Eco, and made his work the centerpiece of her regular 20th-century comparative literature courses. When I started reading the Sicilian novelist Lara Cardella, who was half my age and a third of Simone’s, Simone sent agents into the bookstores of Europe to bring back the newest Cardella for us both to read. And almost as much as Puccini, she loved Robocop.

While she was intermittently talking to me, Simone always added energy to my day. When I arrived at UTA in 1988, I was given an office across from Simone on the 6th floor of Carlisle Hall. I would be minding my own business when Simone would strut in in a cloud of cigarette smoke and proclaim: “They have just determined the language family that Etruscan belongs to! Do you know what it is?” Beats me, Simone. “FINNO-UGARIC!” And she would pivot on one heel and depart as smokily as she’d arrived.

Simone loved animals, despite her legendary allergies: birds of all kinds, and Scottie dogs, in particular. She was a magnificent Italian cook. She loved students, especially those who loved her, and was savagely devoted to her favorites – and I do not say that as a bad thing; she loved people who loved the art, music, and books that she loved, and at heart there’s nothing wrong with that.

Simone witnessed a swath of Italian history. Her father was persecuted by Mussolini, and Simone would later see Il Duce hanging dead in a Milan plaza. On a lighter note, she once saw the Nobel Literature prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo in his underwear. The story goes that the great man had become enamored of one of Simone’s schoolfriends. Upon bustling into her friend’s flat one afternoon, she encountered Quasimodo in his BVDs. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us and unclad Nobel Laureates.

Simone, you were often impossible to get along with, but as I said when you retired in 2001, “ti vogliamo bene” – and now, “ti avremmo voluto bene.” Rest well.

—Tim Morris


  1. I had no idea who Simone was, but reading your evocative and beautiful tribute, her character and humanity developed fully before my eyes. It should be published–somewhere where it is never lost. What an affirmation of life!–Myra.

  2. When I took freshman composition in 1979-ish during my UTA undergraduate days, the teacher was a white-haired fellow — I wish I could remember his name — who bore a certain resemblance to George Burns. I remember his referring more than once to a colleague — “Simoooone Turrrbeville,” he would say.

    My impression was that he and she had some sort of ongoing feud, although apparently not of such severity that he would speak of her disrespectfully.

  3. I’ve heard stories about her. What I’ve most heard most about her concerns her personality, as Tim portrays . I heard that she had a lot of cigarette ashes in her UTA desk after she retired that had to be cleaned out by hand. Did she really smoke after she had learned that in Carlisle that that was not OK? The third most notable thing I’ve heard about her; and in this order of most recurrent hearing of stories, is that she took care of lots of outside neighborhood cats at her home and that she had *many* of them to care for. How would she speak out about UTA going tobacco free?

  4. I took two classes from her as an undergraduate. She taught Dante from the Italian and would call students out for not documenting sources correctly. She had a gruff exterior, but I really liked her and learned alot from her. I always picture her when I teach Dante. And yes, she smoked in her office until she retired. I was lucky to be one of the students that she liked. Upon her retirement, she passed me on, like a torch, to Kevin Gustafson. She told him, “You will like her. She is a hard worker.” Rest well, indeed, Simome.

  5. Dr. Morris,

    Prof. Turbeville was born Fiorella Antonella Sirotti on April 9, 1930, to Noel and Giuseppina Sirotti in Milan. As dubious as this might appear to you, I do have a copy of her birth certificate. As for the rest of it, a less humble, but perhaps more salient, consideration was whether a university the caliber of UT Arlington (previously Arlington State College) actually deserved someone of her considerable intellect and knowledge. It is there that I think you will discover the well spring of her career-long frustration.


    Dr. Bruce N. Turbeville

  6. She was my freshman English Composition teacher at ASC in the fall of 1963. We did get along; I earned a B, the only one to get grade points in a class of 25 or so. She concentrated on logic and good outline. As a cryptographer and civil libertarian, the text, “Toward Liberal Education,” was just what I needed then and now.

    As a restless soul myself, I’m currently in Federal Court fighting for justice for the disabled and against despotism as it is spreading here in Texas. Thanks wonderful lady, one survivor to another. The Lesson, the most important lesson, is that the pursuit of the truth and freedom are absolute requirements, at least for me and for Simone.

    Closing time is the burden of existence. My stroke in 1999 did not wrest me from speaking with her one more time, still pert and succinct.

  7. I had Dr. Turbeville for five graduate courses from 1988-1991. I remember lending her a copy of “Perfume” to her and her response was “Deestooorbing!” I loved how she would drop a paper clip for emphasis while declaring “Jesus, man!” Her classes will always remain a highlight of my life, comparing apples, oranges, Mann to Eliot. She made me stretch and for that I will always be grateful.

  8. Dr. Morris,

    Thanks for the obituary notice, although I’m reading it more than a bit late. I wish I’d known when it happened, but there you go–we all drift apart, just one of life’s little ironies.

    As far as Dr. Simone Turbeville goes, I will always be grateful to her. She is the reason why I went to graduate school, and thus the reason why I am now an Associate Professor of English. My first class with her was in 1988, when I was a junior in her Dante class, and the last class I had with her was in 1994, I think it might have been the 20th century Comparative Lit with Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. A lot of professors there at UTA wrote me off, I suppose because I did not always make stellar grades for every class, but she fought for me constantly, so I guess you could say that I was one of those students you are describing. The criticism I have of the department here, and one to which she often contributed problems, concerned the ongoing battles between literature and rhetoric, which got to the point of ridiculousness on both sides. I have rarely ever seen a department so fractured by the petty infighting, where rhetoric actually threatened to split off and join the Philosophy Dept. Nuts. However, I agree with Simone that the emphasis on theory has become an overblown bow to an industry that is no longer supportable–the economy simply cannot maintain the useless bloat of humanities papers that contribute to nothing except landfills, the endless parade of textbooks that are overpriced and done mostly to achieve tenure. Simone was a teaching professor, and she maintained that she contributed to the faculty enough with her teaching without the race for Publish or Perish. Criticism by certain other fellow faculty was unwarranted, in many degrees, where other times I found myself and other undergraduate and graduate students being endlessly manipulated and sometimes destroyed by faculty with whom the students weren’t even acquainted, much less taking their classes. Simone HATED it when the students were targeted for their committee affiliations, and some of the professors in our department were some of the worst I have ever seen. Unlike Simone, many of these professors were not particularly good teachers, either, and very often, they weren’t even that good at research, either, so how they could have such high opinions of themselves is a mystery; Simone, on the other hand, was prodigiously knowledgeable, and proved it every day she was there. As I recall, she said that when she came to the US, McCarthyism was in full swing, and the universities here would not accept her PhD as valid because she was Italian, perversely profiling her as a fascist, while all of time, both her father and uncle were persecuted by Mussolini. I remember the funny story she told about her father bringing home a baby chick so that they could raise it and have a chicken dinner, only to find that it became their pet and could not kill it, so the chicken ended up living on the balcony in the summer and their bathtub in the winter. Lol! She was a hoot.

    Granted, because I was one of her students and she refused to talk about theory, I was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the professional parts of English instruction, and while I tried to understand the relevance of the material in Dr. Morris’ theory class, it didn’t click with me until I left UTA. When I went to Texas Tech, I got a hard slap, got on the stick, and did what I had to do. Dr. Bruce Clarke was the one who got me moving on theory, and Dr. Fred Kemp saved me from the path of academic Bolivia by bringing me up to speed on the value of rhetoric. Now, I can teach theory, Comparative, and British Literature, as well as composition (several of our senior professors teach in our Core), and my dissertation was interdisciplinary–Literature and Science. The bedrock of my education from Simone remains my most stabilizing influence, however, and her influence has enabled me a certain degree of freedom from the treadmills of our profession. She was irascible, could be irrational and hot-headed, but I will always remember her at her best, in the classroom. She and Emory Estes were my favorites. She kicked my butt at times, but she motivated me in ways where others could not or did not. Simone, I will miss you, but I will see you in Paradiso. Ciao, mi piccolo angela!

  9. I too am reading this long after the fact.
    But what memories it brings back. I recall sitting and waiting for class to begin, and suddenly the door would open and a short, dark woman looking like an Italian Edith Piaf would walk in, dump a stack of books on the desk, pull out a cigarette, light it, and then launch into a 60 minute monologue that transported your mind and your spirit.
    I took 4 classes from her, and almost went into graduate studies in English, but opted for medical school instead. She wrote one of my letters of recommendation for medical school, and I am grateful to her for that. But, more than that, she taught me how to think, and how to write, and how to appreciate beautiful literature.
    Ciao, Professoressa

  10. If I may, I should like to post here the eulogy of Simone Turbeville that I read at the memorial service for her on January 16, 2010:


    “Dr. Simone Turbeville is being remembered this day for her long and worthy service as a professor of English at The University of Texas at Arlington. She arrived here in 1960 and taught until her retirement in 2001. I did not meet her right away after my arrival here in 1964 as a lowly instructor in German. It must have been toward the late 1960’s when I really got to know her, and this was most fortunate, for we shared many interests and values.

    “The ‘Signora,’ as we came to call her, held two doctorate degrees, one in English from the University of Milan, the other in comparative litarature from Indiana University. She held two doctorates and taught accordingly. Her classes were noted for their rich content and her own rigorous instruction, this drawing upon the depth of her knowledge of literature. She taught at the real university level, and this teaching sometimes was “off-putting” to some students and perhaps a few colleagues as well, but she was generally and deservedly held in high esteem throughout the English department at UTA and no less highly regarded by those outside the English department who knew her personally.

    “Dr. Turbeville had two intense passions. One was literature and the other was music. She had several course topics that were uniquely hers within the English Dept. An example was her course in the European novel, for which the typical reading list included Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi in Italian). All of these were works which the Signora deeply loved. Two of these had a connection to her interest in music: The Magic Mountain, set in a sanitarium in Switzerland, includes a sequence in which the principal character, Hans Castorp, discovers an old phonograph and listens to a sequence of recordings of classical music. And Manzoni, much beloved by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, was the dedicatee of Verdi’s Requiem Mass, one of the Signora’s favorite compositions.

    “Enduring childhood in Mussolini’s Italy, she found solace in reading and in music. I can recall her telling me about a wartime performance of Massenet’s Manon, stated to have included soprano Toti dal Monte and tenor Beniamino Gigli in the cast. There was an air raid during the performance. The house lights were turned off, but the performance continued.

    “After the war, there occurred the emergence of the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas, whose performances were broadcast all over Italy and whose career the Signora pursued enthusiastically, and whose recordings she purchased.

    “During her years at UTA she was instrumental in founding and publishing the literary magazine Allegorica, which was for a time supported by UTA. I was able to contribute indirectly to this publication. During my work on my own Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, I encountered there a graduating student who had written a translation from a work in Old High German and was looking for a place to have it published. I directed that student to Allegorica, and that student’s work did indeed appear in that magazine.

    “During a period of some inner-departmental controversy, there arose a kind of underground newsletter that circulated within the department and which was read not only within the department but also by others outside it, including myself. Members of the department were represented by transparent pseudonyms, and most of them were unspared by the newsletter’s satire. Among these fictional figures was a certain “Dr. Turkeyville” whose main activities, according to the newsletter, included uttering Tuscan oaths up and down the department, and hurling bottles of Thunderbird Chianti at the department’s Chair.

    “In thinking about this commemorative occasion, I considered what I might say in remembrance of Dr. Turbeville, and my thoughts turned toward the parable of the sower, found in all three of the synoptic gospels of the New Testament. The sower, we are told, sowed seeds in a field. Some of the seeds landed in barren soil and did not prosper. Some other seeds landed in shallow soil and sprouted, but they later withered for lack of nourishment. And still other seeds landed in fertile soil, and they sprouted and grew into a harvest. The seeds of the parable referred to the teaching of the kingdom of Heaven, but it occurred to me that the seeds could also refer to the teaching of anything else. The barren soil would, in academic terms, refer to students who were ill-prepared for university-level work and who were unable to continue that work to the end of the course. The shallow soil would refer to students who had some interest in the subject matter of the course but who lacked the ability to pursue the course thoroughly. These either dropped out or received poor grades. The fertile soil would refer to those students who were truly prepared for university-level work and who eagerly absorbed the material presented to them, finishing the course with excellent grades and having something to live for after the course was over.

    “I must point out, however, that none of the three versions of this parable makes any reference to a bureaucrat who might toddle out into the field behind the sower for the purpose of rating the latter’s ‘sowing effectiveness’.

    “And so we bid farewell to this remarkable colleague, cherishing the memory of her exemplary knowledge, her collegiality, her generosity, and her academic courage.”

  11. Well done, Dr. Cowan!
    I remember you fondly as well, as you were part of a small group of professors who actually taught university courses at a univeristy level.

  12. Dr. Turbeville was my professor for three classes in the early 1980’s (Graeco-Roman literature, Ren/Baroque literature, Classical Literature). She had a fantastic sense of humor. I remember her sitting against the edge of her desk, talking about how Odysseus was the first great Western hero. She was surrounded by a cloud of smoke, holding what seemed like a six-inch cigarette holder, in that sophisticated way of hers. I assume UTA doesn’t allow professors to smoke in class anymore. Come to think of it, she was the only one I had that did but it just seemed to fit her.

    I still have the copy of the Orlando Furioso we used in class and thumb through it occasionally.

    Rest In Peace, Dr. T. Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to meet all those Greek heroes now in person.

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