Novelist, writing champion and book critic was best known for being ‘Mr. SMU’ – Dallas News

Marshall Terry would put his daughters to sleep by singing the Southern Methodist University school song, “Varsity,” and the fight song, “Peruna.”

The creative-writing professor, novelist and university administrator, dubbed “Mr. SMU,” worked at the university for 50 years. He played a role in shaping the school, writing its master plan, which honed the university’s curriculum and educational philosophy.  

Terry, known as “Marsh” to his friends, wrote a dozen novels and became a fellow with the Texas Institute of Letters. He founded SMU’s creative-writing program and the SMU Literary Festival. And he helped generations of students find their literary voices, at least eight of whom have published novels. 

Dallas Morning News readers knew him as a book critic for many years in the 1980s, following the death of famed critic Lon Tinkle. 

Terry died Christmas Eve of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85. Funeral services had not been set as of Monday morning. 

Steve Davis, president of the Texas Institute of Letters, shared the news on Facebook, listing Terry’s many accomplishments. 

“But above else, Marsh was a wonderful human being: kind, compassionate, funny in his quiet way, insightful, dignified, devoted to his family, always a gentleman,” Davis wrote. “He was the sort of person you always looked forward to seeing. His passing is a big loss.”

Terry was known for his decades-long dedication to SMU. 

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Terry attended Amherst College and Kenyon College before transferring to SMU in 1951. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 and a master’s in 1954. 

He went on to teach and work as an administrator for the school until 2007, when he retired. University President Gerald Turner once referred to Terry as “the campus Yoda.”

“He will forever be remembered as an SMU treasure whose legacy will live on through his own acclaimed work and the writing of his students and others whose work he influenced over generations,” Turner said Monday in a written statement. 

The novelist and short-story writer even wrote a memoir about the school after his retirement. Loving U: The Story of a Love Affair (and Some Lover’s Quarrels) With a University was published in 2011.

“There are people who will tell you that SMU is not first-rate,” Terry told The News before his retirement. “But I will tell you that SMU has come a long way from when I showed up in 1951, when it was a good prairie college.

“I’m proud of that.”

Terry was never any one thing. Even while teaching, he was writing. And while writing, he was growing the university’s English department. 

“Some writers are just writers. Some teachers are just teachers. Some leaders are just leaders. He was all three of those in the same body,” said Richard Crossland, a former SMU student and creative-writing instructor. “That’s what made him different.”

Terry gave Crossland his first teaching job — while he was still a student. Crossland said he was honored by the request, “that he would trust me to teach his class when I was a student.” 

He described Terry as tough but not overbearing. He could critique students’ work without seeming critical. 

“He knew when to scold and when to praise and when to keep his mouth shut,” he said.

Terry was known for opening his home to famous authors, including Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty, and to his students. 

“Marsh was the heart and soul of creative writing at SMU,” said former student and author Tracy Daugherty. “More than that, he modeled for us all … what it was to be a gentle but firmly committed humanist. The world sorely needs more Marshall Terrys right now.”

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