Emeritus professor Tommy Ray Burkett, who endeared himself to the Denison community through his love of Shakespeare and his spirit of inclusion, died November 15, 2021, at the age of 90.
From chairing academic committees to supporting calls for social justice, the Texas-born Burkett related to people across the socioeconomic spectrum. He built friendships with faculty members and students, often hosting them for weekend gatherings, and developed connections with workers on the periphery of the London theater scene, gatekeepers who would give Burkett’s students behind-the-scenes access on his many trips to England.
He joined the English department at Denison in 1963 and remained an asset to the university long after his 1993 retirement. “I often tell people, what I learned at Denison is that if I worked hard and kept the greater good in mind, I could do and be anything I wanted,” writes author Pamela Houston, ’83. “Tommy Burkett was the cornerstone of that training. He taught me to be a teacher, and teaching is by far the most important work of my life.”
Burkett was eager to please even as a child growing up in Henderson, Texas, where each year he accepted his father’s challenge of eating a raw jalapeño pepper to toughen him up. “He would run out of the house screaming with tears in his eyes, but he always ate it,” says his son, Thomas, who taught for 34 years in the Granville Schools system.
After earning his undergraduate degree in English at Rice University, Burkett attended the University of Kansas before joining the English department at Denison. Areas of expertise included 18th century satire, Shakespeare, and the history of language.
He served as chair of the English department and as chair of the Academic Affairs Council. He also led presidential search advisory committees, which selected Robert C. Good and Michele Tolela.
Burkett and his wife, Karolyn, backed the fight for equal rights among students and embraced the influx of women in the Denison faculty in the 1970s. The couple was renowned for hosting weekend get-togethers in their homes, some of which included Egyptian- and nautical-inspired themes. Karolyn held annual women’s-only Halloween parties, where they watched Dracula, starring Frank Langella.
“They were kind, they were welcoming, and they were the best kind of Baptists I ever met in my life,” says former English professor Anne Shaver. “Faculty members who didn’t have anywhere to go on Thanksgiving were always welcomed in their home.”
Burkett’s affinity for Shakespeare and English history saw him guide more than 40 trips to London, where students, faculty, and members of the Granville community attended plays. His vast network of English acquaintances afforded his guests entry into worlds not seen by average tourists.
Nicknamed “Papa” by his friends, Burkett rode across campus and through Granville in roomy Cadillacs with the license plate IPAPAI.
He is survived by Karolyn, their four children (Thomas, Jeff, Kris, Mandy), and seven grandchildren.