Twenty years ago, I was moving into my first DC apartment when I learned that a Mr. Turner from Sidwell Friends had called. I had applied for a job to teach African history, and while I was wisely overlooked for that position, I was seemingly a better fit to teach two sections of United States history. The Dude—Ellis Turner, that is—seemed affable enough. I suspected he was one of those effete, tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking prep school types I had seen in the movies.
I suspected I would never hear from him again. But I was invited in for an interview, and the Dude hired me, promising me that the position would be for one year only. Sounded good to me, as I was skeptical of this whole independent school proposition. My skepticism decreased as I came to know Ellis. He became a friend and mentor, teaching me things that I never knew were important.
He taught me that the word “dude” could be conjugated as follows: dude, duder, dudest, with an irregular form used most frequently by former history teacher George Ovitt— duderonomy. To Ellis, everyone was a dude, a universal term of endearment and one that, depending on how it was inflected, could communicate a range of emotions. “Dude, come on, man” meant that we should stop taking ourselves too seriously. “Dahuuude” meant that something outrageous had taken place. The less enthusiastic “Dude, seriously?” conveyed concern.
I learned that he was obsessed with Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, James Fenimore Cooper, the Kennedy assassination, and anything having to do with conspiracy.
I learned that he had great nostalgia for the sixties. He had an unusual love of Jimi Hendrix—“Purple Haze” is his ringtone on his school phone—and he is able to quote Bob Dylan lyrics with great alacrity.
I learned he does not like to drive over bridges—in fact, once when we were driving to the Eastern Shore for an administrative retreat, he stopped his car on the Annapolis side of the Bay Bridge and asked me to drive across it.
After my first few months at the School, I found myself asking, “Is this guy for real? Do they really trust him to teach these kids? To chair the History Department? To be in charge of the crisis communication plan?”
They did—and for good reason. The kids loved him. His courses captivated their imaginations and inspired them to engage in original research that would shape their lives for years. He stayed in touch with his students, engaging them with Facebook posts that were at once witty and erudite.
Jeff Himmelman ’94 explained that Ellis was a remarkably rigorous grader, but he had a sense of humor that cut the tension of the place and engendered a deep loyalty to students. “He would run through a wall for you,” Jeff remembered—and they would do so for him as well. Former student Ed Dixon ’82 was so devoted to Ellis that he drove Ellis’s wife, Helene, home from the hospital after the birth of their daughter, Marie ’02. And when alumni heard he was retiring, they rallied to throw a farewell party and establish an endowed scholarship in his name.
But Ellis did more than earn the trust of his students. The Dude could be trusted because he abided by an authentic code, one that mixed fun with professionalism, one that bridled a healthy irreverence with unwavering fastidiousness, one that enabled seemingly whimsical inquiry to take place within a scholarly context.
He abided by an ethos that enabled him to understand the workings of the adolescent brain. He abided by working dutifully with faculty to develop projects that promoted professional growth and stimulated their imaginations. He abided by a love for the School’s history and an unmitigated determination to protect it from an over-inquisitive media. He abided by an unusual sense of duty to the institution, one that enabled him to serve brilliantly as interim Upper School principal and interim Head of School and to be entrusted with managing the media and interaction with outside dignitaries. He abided by a generosity of spirit, an edgy sense of humor that helped him—and many of us— navigate the seriousness and weight of this place. After 37 years, the Dude still abides.
And as he prepared to leave, I found myself asking, “Dude, what are we going to do without you?”
by Bryan Garman