Kappa of California: ΦBK at UC Davis

Image of Professor Wright

Celeste Turner Wright 
(1906-1999)

The UC Davis Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Kappa of California, was founded in 1968.

One of our founding members was Celeste Turner Wright, Professor of English at UC Davis for many years, beginning in 1928. Celeste Turner Wright was an active member of the UC Davis community for more than 51 years, from the time she came to the campus, then the University Farm in 1928, until after her retirement in 1979. She died of cancer on September 16, 1999. For 27 of these 51 years, she chaired the Division of English (1928-34), the Division of Languages and Literature (1934-52), and the Department of English, Dramatic Art and Speech (1952-1955). In that time she taught English, Latin, German, and drama, in addition to being “a refining influence” (her words) for the farm boys at what was in 1928 the agricultural branch of UC Berkeley, the Farm annex.

She was born in New Brunswick, Canada, there being no hospital in her home town of Kenio, Maine, on St Patrick's Day and educated in a three-student school. She entered high school at 11 and moved with her family to Pasadena in 1918; she graduated from Pasadena High in 1921. She then attended the Southern Branch of the University of California, a two-year school that added an upper division while she was a student and became UCLA. She graduated at 19, then went to Berkeley, earning a master's degree and a Ph.D. in three years.

Arriving at Davis, Professor Wright achieved many firsts. She was the first woman with a Ph.D. to become a faculty member, the first woman to be tenured, the first teacher of Latin, German, and public speaking, the first drama instructor, the first humanities professor to be honored as Faculty Research Lecturer, and the only woman to have an academic building named after her.

The UC Davis Dramatic Arts Building was named Celeste Turner Wright Hall on October 9, 1997, celebrating her long commitment to drama, including her dissertation and first book, Anthony Mundy: An Elizabethan Man of Letters, about a playwright, her many years of teaching Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, and her founding of the Drama Department and early directing of the first plays produced on campus. Beyond these, the subjects of her scholarly articles ranged from Amazons in literature to Wallace Stevens, Katherine Mansfield, and a classic article on Renaissance imagery in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. For many years, humanities at UC Davis and Celeste Turner Wright were synonymous.

Before the Davis chapter was established, elegible students at UC Davis were inducted into the Berkeley chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, which was established in 1898 (Alpha of California).