I must note the death in Atlanta yesterday of Susan Turner Purvis — friend, neighbor and teacher of my children. She suffered a stroke earlier in the week on a trip and passed peacefully in hospice care surrounded by family and wrapped in the prayers and fervent wishes of untold numbers of admirers.
A 1970 graduate of Hendrix College, she’d just retired after a career as an art teacher at Gibbs Magnet Elementary, where both my children benefitted from her skills. Our house is full of sculpture, paintings, Christmas ornaments and other beloved totems of childhood done under her instruction.
It is a sad irony — but a measure, too, of her vitality and thus the crush of her loss — that the most recent Little Rock School District newsletter recounted two items of interest about Purvis. She’d been selected to contribute an article to an encyclopedia of Southern culture on the artist Henry Sugimoto, a Japanese American who did important paintings during his internment in an Arkansas camp during World War II. It also recounted a gift of arts supplies to Gibbs by the Thea Foundation
In presenting the gift, Paul Leopoulos, Executive Director of the Thea Foundation, told the Gibbs student body that the most important thing about art was not about becoming an artist but about “learning to think.”
Mrs. Purvis expressed her gratitude to both the architects and the Foundation. “With this bequest, they have underscored their commitment to the arts for all children and have taught our children well about the importance of giving.”
Giving is exactly what Susan Purvis did. Every day. I mean no disrespect to the many great teachers I know, but I always thought first of Susan Purvis each time one of the usual suspects went on a tear about the teaching profession — particularly those who are members, as Susan was, of the Little Rock Education Association.
Mastery of her subject didn’t begin to tell the story. Nor did the awards perennially won by her students in the annual Arkansas Arts Center competition for mind-blowing assemblies in which everyone in the school had a part. (Anybody have a photo of one of these, such as the Ray Winder Field assembly; the circus; the Harlem Renaissance; the Clinton inaugural parade?) She observed no time clock. If supplies were lacking, she found them. That smile you see in the photo posted on Facebook by a friend was a permanent feature. She enfolded thousands of children in her kindness and grace. I can’t shake a certain anger at her death. Too soon, for one thing. But it also reminds me of how people slur the teaching profession in this city. She was one of a kind, but she also was not alone. She was yet another one of those remarkable people who grew up in a place called Hope. I join all those mourning with Joe, Elizabeth, Benjamin and the rest of her family.