Maurine Davenport McElroy was born in Eastland, Texas, on September 28, 1913, and died almost ninety-three years later, on September 2, 2005, in Austin, Texas. She left two children, Ken and Mary (Mickie), and many devoted students.
The small town, three brothers, chores on a farm and solo performances of operatic arias began to form her West Texas aplomb, especially the smile which somehow commanded respect. In the 1930s, when she was ready for college, Eastland’s oil boom gave her the means to study English language and literature, first at Weatherford Junior College and Texas Technological College (B.A., 1937), then at Hardin-Simmons College (M.A., 1941), finally at The University of Texas (Ph.D., 1964).
Retired from the Department of English in 1998, she began her long career here on February 29, 1960, when Professor Rudolph Willard wrote to his colleagues, “I am happy to support the application of Mrs. Maurine D. McElroy for a teaching assistantship in our department.” Everyone called Maurine “Mrs.” the variants being “Mrs. Mac” or “Mrs. McElroy.” Willard used the same title with good reason. By 1960, Maurine had already married Ken McElroy, had been raising two children and had been teaching high school English for fifteen years, in Eastland (her own two brothers and several friends), briefly in Fort Worth (where it was frowned upon to be pregnant), and in Corpus Christi (where she taught both high school and community college). She had fifteen years experience as a feature writer for The
Little Rock Democrat
and The Corpus Christi
By 1960, the Department of English at UT had recruited outstanding graduate students to enhance its national standing. The department’s real need, however, was to hire a person with teaching experience, proven writing ability, and the skill to deal with students older than eighteen. Numbers of veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars were entering UT as freshmen. Willard’s letter attempted a rationale for the acceptance of a forty-seven-year-old as a graduate assistant, i.e., a teacher of freshman students: “She is not young, but she compensates for this by her mature power. She obviously likes teaching. She has poise, grace, good humor and a healthy and winning good nature.” What better title than “Mrs. McElroy”?
In 1960, it was unusual for a woman in Texas to have taught many years, written feature articles, and raised a family, all at the same time. It was more unusual to have been accepted by a group of academics because of those skills. Not only Maurine’s experience but also her seminar paper caught Professor Willard by surprise. He, a well-known scholar of Anglo-Saxon, says, in the same letter of acceptance, “I was impressed by…her brilliant report on the Leningrad manuscript of Bede,” as yet another “exhibition of her persistence and good sense.” She, a beginning Anglo-Saxon scholar but unaware of the Leningrad Bede before that seminar, had persevered and delivered the product of her research with West Texas aplomb. Impressed by her intellect, nevertheless he and Professor Thomas Cranfill (her dissertation director) placed “more value” on her “as a teacher.” So Professors Willard, Cranfill, Cline, and Sutherland had to use various stratagems to make sure that the UT administration hired her after 1964, the year she completed her Ph.D. (At that time, departments at UT were not allowed to hire their own Ph.D. students as faculty members). Since she could not have the title of assistant professor at UT, she was hired as “Special Instructor McElroy” from 1963-65. For the next three years, she was titled Instructor McElroy. Finally, the Department of English persuaded the administration of its need and her talent. In 1969, Mrs. McElroy was tenured at UT, as an associate professor of English.
She taught Elementary and Advanced English Composition, Shakespeare, Renaissance Drama, Modern Drama, the Sophomore Survey of British Literature, Graduate Seminars, numerous and Modern Drama – a special love – from 1969 to 1998. She also directed Ph.D. dissertations, Plan II honors theses, departmental projects, national projects, etc. She was president of the South Central Renaissance Conference, and also a lifetime member of the College English Association who, in 2001, named her Teacher of the Year. Among her several publications, perhaps the most respected is “Fulgens and Lucrece: England’s First Romantic Comedy,” Explorations
in Renaissance Culture
, vol.8 (1982). She published poetry, for example, “The Quiet Cathedral” (1955). “The History of Corpus Christi,” originally written for the Corpus
Christi Caller Times
, was revised and anthologized as ”The History of Nueces County,” Chapter 13 of Texas
County Historical Series
No publication or elected office pleased her as much as the little note appended to her Annual Faculty Report for 1968:
Among the rewards of a teacher: Dedication of a book of one-act plays by a former student, Terence McNally: these plays produced on WNET Channel 13, New York City, in March of 1968.
She refers to “Apple Pie,” performed on PBS Television as part of the network’s American Playhouse Series. Although other annual reports do not mention another play dedicated to her by Mr. McNally, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” was produced in 1987 by the Manhattan Theatre Club, made into a movie in 1991 (Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer), and produced again in 2002 at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway (with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci). For this latter production, it is noteworthy that she attended the opening night of the 2002 production in New York as Mr. McNally’s special guest. This omission may have been because she felt that the dedication did not belong to the 1960s as much as it did to the 1950s. As Mr. McNally explained, he and “Peggy Powell and Pete Walsh were just especially enthusiastic and ambitious students who loved working for and with Mrs. McElroy,” in 1955 at the W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi. Peggy Powell (Dobbins) expresses Maurine’s talent for motivating learning as a “knack for turning any assortment of disparate souls into an intellectual community,” by making them “memorize a lot,” for example, “lists of English monarchs dated in sync with the writers… and something quotable.” Somehow or other, Peggy, “usually the only girl in the group,” even though she ordinarily belonged to the “popular girl set,” melded into that “community.” They all “felt free to go by Mrs. Mac’s any night of the week.”
Mr. Terry Weeks, another of Maurine’s students at W.B. Ray High School, recalls a much later event indicative of the melding of that group and the type of group it was. He and Maurine went to New York to attend a more controversial opening night, the debut of Mr. McNally’s “Corpus Christi.” The controversial subject matter, a gay Jesus in Whom His Father is “well pleased” with Peggy “immortalized as the only girl in the group,” stirred some New Yorkers and kindred sympathizers from elsewhere to protest. The hubbub, as well as a fatwa (similar to the one pronounced against Solomon Rushdie), forced the two Terrys and Maurine to seek the safety of the theater. Peggy thinks “in retrospect, … she wrought us into a community of intellectuals, because she HAD to have…such to thrive intellectually herself.”
In the retrospect of a “Faculty Resolution,” Mrs. Powell Dobbins’ insights portray the talent Maurine continued to exhibit at UT. For example, Maurine and Mr. Weeks went to Del Mar College, as teacher and student, where she taught him and the returning vets college English; Mr. Weeks kept on at UT (law school) and was among the last to leave Maurine’s grave site. Years later, Mr. Weeks’s daughter, enrolled in Freshman English at UT with Mrs. McElroy, continued the intellectual community formed at Corpus Christi. Mandy Weeks received her grade largely based on how well she tutored the football players to write their essays. Professor Patricia Fernós now recalls learning to “read, read, read” and “write, write, write” under “Mrs. McElroy’s magisterial smile,” in W.B. Ray High in Corpus Christi, “in 1955.” She explains how she fitted and fits into this “group of disparate souls.” “I had seen her [Maurine] get a Ph.D. late in life; why couldn’t I?” So she came to UT in 1956, registered in Plan II, and returned to do her Ph.D. in 1991.
Many other students of Maurine could well have supplied this committee with enough information for a biography. The list of devoted students and staff at UT – a disparate group of prominent Texans, academics, lawyers, and hidden talents – all “wish this wonderful woman to be remembered;” though not mentioned by name, they still participated in the composition of this Resolution. For all remember “Mrs. McElroy” as being “my teacher in a 25+ class,” the long advising sessions, the soirees where incoming students met faculty, the discreet parties on campus for advising staff, the meetings of the Wild Bunch (a group of sexaginarians), the lectures at the Methodist Church on the Drag, and her years teaching Sunday School. All feel what Mr. McNally composed for the back of her tombstone was true, “Not just an English Teacher but a Life teacher.”
In 1983, Mrs. McElroy reached 70, the age for mandatory retirement then. It was time for another stratagem because UT had another need for her expertise. The administration reduced her to half-time teaching, in order to keep within the law. But the administration kept her at full-time employment because they had changed the requirements for every undergraduate degree at UT. Every undergraduate student had to prove proficiency in basic English Composition and Literature or take a course in either or both. Our colleges – engineering, natural sciences, business, fine arts, liberal arts – all benefited from her administrative expertise. At 70, Maurine not only taught but also became the full-time undergraduate adviser in English. She won the Undergraduate Adviser of the Year Award for having engineered the system to register every student in the requisite courses (twenty-five each in a composition course; forty in a literature course). Thousands were registered for composition and/or literature in the Frank Erwin Center. From 1984-87, everyone concerned with undergraduate advising knew the name “Mrs. McElroy.” Very few knew that she was over well over 70 and on half-time service. During the same time, the number of English majors grew from 600 to 1,000. She hired staff to help her and also trained English faculty to help her with the advising of majors. Each major saw a faculty member who both advised and kept in touch during the semester, because it was too much for her to hold long advising sessions. Last year, the English department dedicated Room 116 in Parlin Hall to Maurine’s achievement.
The poem Maurine wrote after the funeral of her friend, Marj Beneke, she might have written for herself. It’s about Ricky, Maurine’s cat, now known as “Emperor Ricky” and pampered by Mr. Ken McElroy.
Tonight I lie on a slab in the mortuary.
Tomorrow the mortician will do to me
what morticians do to people
who lie on slabs in mortuary.
He goes to the back door and listens
for the scrunch of tires on the driveway.
But there is no sound on the driveway.
To the front door he goes
There is no slam of a car door
nor footsteps on the walkway.
Now to the bathroom,
and a leap to the counter
beside the wash basin.
He always likes to see me brush my teeth.
But the toothbrush cup is dry.
Down he jumps to the floor with a thud,
and to the bedroom.
There he explores every inch
of the bed lengthwise and widthwise.
“I’ll come back,” she always said.
At last he finds the spot where
so often he has snuggled against my back
and purred himself to sleep.
Now he curls himself into a furry ball.
And waits for me.
William Powers Jr., President
The University of Texas at Austin
Sue Alexander Greninger, Secretary
The General Faculty
This memorial resolution was prepared by a special committee consisting of Professors
M. Kate Frost (chair), Ernest Kaulbach, and friends and family of Maurine McElroy.