Longtime SMU educator Marshall Northway Terry, Jr. has died

Nickname “Mr. SMU” for his long association with SMU as a professor and administrator.

Marshall Northway Terry
Marsh Terry

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The Dallas Morning News: Novelist Marshall Terry, best known as 'Mr. SMU' for his 50 years with school, dies at 85

Memorial Service

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, in Perkins Chapel. A reception will be held at the Meadows Museum immediately following the service.


Memorial gifts may be made in support of The Marsh Terry Creative Writing Scholarship Endowment Fund by sending checks made out to Southern Methodist University at SMU; PO Box 402; Dallas, TX 75275-0402. Or by making a gift online at smu.edu/giving.

Marshall Northway Terry, Jr., longtime Southern Methodist University educator who earned the nickname of “Mr. SMU” after an association of more than 60 years as a professor and administrator, died at home surrounded by family in the early morning of Christmas Eve in University Park after a long-time illness with Parkinson’s disease.

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, in Perkins Chapel. A reception will be held at the Meadows Museum immediately following the service.

The popular SMU professor gained a reputation as one of Texas’ leading writers as a novelist and short-story writer whose numerous works were marked by intimate studies of individuals confronted by the vicissitudes of ordinary life in a complex society.

Marsh was born on February 7, 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Margaret Carpenter Terry and Marshall Northway Terry. He was the oldest of three children. The family soon moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Marsh graduated from Cincinnati Country Day School in 1949.  After graduation, Marsh attended Amherst College for one year, transferred to Kenyon College for a year, and then ultimately found his way to SMU, marking the beginning of a life-long relationship with the University. He graduated from SMU with a B.A. in English in 1953, and an M.A. in 1954. 

Not only was SMU the source of his academic degrees and his career, but Marsh also met the love of his life on the steps of the Pi Beta Phi sorority house. He married Antoinette Barksdale in a beautiful ceremony in Toni’s hometown of Ruston, Louisiana on September 5, 1953. The young couple moved to Dallas, where Marsh began his distinguished career at SMU as a teaching fellow at the young age of 22.

In 1955, Marsh took a two-year interruption from his love affair with SMU to join the prestigious Dallas advertising firm owned by Sam Bloom, who took Marsh under his wing, introducing him to the powerful leaders and demonstrating the ways in which publicity and advertising could win public favor for important civic projects.  It was here that he also learned one of his favorite sayings: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Marsh become acquainted with Dr. Richardson Johnson, Professor of Economics at SMU, who recognized his writing and human relations skills and urged SMU’s new president, Willis M. Tate, to hire Marsh as director of public relations and instructor in English.  So Marsh returned to the campus in 1957 for the rest of his career.

The central thread of Marsh’s life was the written word. His wish to teach English and his growing interest in creative writing and becoming a published author led him from the public relations office to the English Department.

In 1961 he published his first novel, Old Liberty, a stunning success which gained attention in major newspapers.  The New York Times reviewer described it as “a galvanic picture of contemporary life in America in which hallowed themes are handled with a fresh, wild vigor.” The dedication line was: “For Freshmen.”

His New York publisher was Viking, and his editor was Pascal Covici, highly respected as the editor of John Steinbeck, and many other famous writers.  Probably, it had been Marsh’s first two years at Amherst and Kenyon that gave him his ideas for this successful first novel about campus life. At Kenyon, he may have been inspired by a student he met and admired who became a famous literary success, E.L. Doctorow. Another student he admired at Kenyon was the future movie star Paul Newman, with whom he conversed at the campus laundromat.

The success of Old Liberty, the fictitious college Marsh created as his model, immediately propelled him into the top ranks of Texas writers, a ranking which he would maintain throughout his life as novels and short stories followed in succession. They inevitably were more sedate then the rambunctious antics described in Old Liberty, concentrating on the inner conflicts of individuals trying to cope with the exigencies of family life and other problems in society.

Meanwhile, at SMU, Terry rapidly rose through the academic ranks, from instructor to assistant professor, then associate, and ultimately a full professor holding the E.A. Lilly Endowed Chair.  He served two terms as chairman of the English Department, several years as associate provost and was the founder and director of the creative writing program. Marsh drafted SMU’s important Master Plan for the curriculum, which placed a heavy emphasis on inter-disciplinary courses and set the course for the SMU undergraduate experience for the future.  In addition, he participated in many extracurricular events, including advising the President’s Scholars and organizing and pitching for the English Department softball team.

Terry’s academic achievements came without a PhD, normally a required stepping stone for aspiring professors. He had started his PhD studies at Yale, but soon realized that he preferred concentrating on his career as a writer, using SMU as his academic base.

Before founding the creative writing program, Terry spent four months attending Wallace Stegner’s classes at his well-established program at Stanford University, becoming a long-time friend with Stegner. The Literary Festival, which Terry founded in 1975, annually brought many of the nation’s foremost writers to the campus for a few days to speak and interact with students, further broadening his growing literary friendships.  For years, Marsh and Toni hosted the opening night reception at their home on Lovers Lane. Authors who attended the Literary Festival included Saul Bellow, John Barth, E.L. Doctorow and Eudora Welty among others.  He later founded SMU’s summer creative writing program at Fort Burgwin in Taos, New Mexico, and also directed the SMU-in-Oxford program for several summers.  

Marsh followed Old Liberty with an even more personal novel, Tom Northway, in which he modeled its 90-year-old main character after his own grandfather. This brought him the honor of being the co-winner of the Texas Institute of Letter’s (TIL) top prize for best novel of 1968. Tom Northway was followed by two other novels in what was called the “Northway Saga” series – My Father’s Hands (1992) and Land of Hope and Glory (1996). In 2006 he added a fourth volume, The Memorialist, which included a novella and short stories.

Marsh taught one of the most popular classes offered at SMU, the Myth of the American West. The study of western literature led Marsh to write his “urban western,” Ringer, published in 1987.

Literary and academic honors were frequent, including especially his selection to TIL. He became its president in 1990 and continued to serve in a leadership capacity, ultimately as a wise sage who was regularly relied upon for guidance. His short story appearing in The Southwest Review, “The Antichrist,” won TIL’s award for that category in 1972. In 1990 Terry was named winner of the TIL’s Lon Tinkle Award, given each year to a Texas author for continuing excellence as a writer, joining such previous winners as Tom Lea, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, A.C. Greene, and later by Horton Foote, Cormac McCarthy and Larry L. King.

Other honors included several “M Awards,” SMU’s highest commendation for academic achievement, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 2007, the SMU Distinguished Alumni Award in 1998, and the SMU Literati Award in 2012.

Marsh’s ongoing and rewarding relationship with SMU prompted him to write two books about the university. “From High on the Hilltop…” was published as a brief history in 1993, revised in 2001 and enlarged with essays by other SMU authors in 2009. The second book, appearing in 2011, was entitled Loving U: The Story of a Love Affair (And Some Lovers’ Quarrels) with a University.

His six-decades-long and intimate involvement with SMU led to the nickname of “Mr. SMU.” SMU President Gerald R. Turner often joked that Marsh was the only SMU faculty member who could remember the days of founding president Robert S. Hyer, who held the office from 1911-1919.

Marsh’s deep love for teaching and for his students was evident to all.  He and Toni often opened their home to students for teaching and fellowship, and many of his students became life-long friends.

Marsh and Toni had a long and happy marriage in which they enjoyed the life of the university, travel and especially being with friends and family. Their daughters, Toinette and Mary, brought special joy to Marsh’s life, and he enjoyed special relationships with each of his grandchildren, his nephews and nieces.  He had a tender heart, quick wit, prized sense of humor and an infectious spirit that filled everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. Marsh had a contagious laugh and loved to sing on any and all occasions, including in class (although he couldn’t always carry a tune and often didn’t remember all the words).

Preceded in death by his parents, sister Sandra Terry Lobdell, brother Lee Carpenter Terry, sister-in-law Dorothy Dell Buffington, he is survived by his wife, Antoinette Barksdale Terry; daughter, Antoinette Terry Bryant of Los Angeles, CA; son-in-law David Martel Bryant; daughter, Mary Terry Benton and husband Terrell William Benton, III of Atlanta, GA; grandchildren Jessica Ansley Bryant of New York, NY; John David Bryant of Los Angeles, CA; Terrell William Benton, IV and Marshall Davis Benton of Atlanta, GA; sister-in-law Mary Helen Bradford and husband Ron Bradford of Dallas, TX; brother-in-law Lamar Buffington of Monroe, LA; nephew Michael Street McFarland and wife Joanna Newman McFarland of Los Angeles, CA; niece Helen Buffington Simpson and husband Joey Simpson of Shreveport, LA; niece Mary Ansley Buffington, of Shreveport, LA niece Leigh Barksdale Buffington of Monroe, LA; nephews Brian Lobdell and Bruce Lobdell of Dallas, TX; niece Kristin Terry Bentley of Cherry Hill, NJ, and his grand-nieces and grand-nephews.