This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.
She’s been described as “Dynamite.” “Amazing.” “Unique.” “A Living Legend.”
These are just some of the words Dr. Antoinette Turnquist’s former students use to describe her and the difference she has made in their lives.
What makes one teacher stand out among so many others, and make such an impact on his or her students…an impact felt even years later? It might be her basic teaching philosophy: “Every student matters; every student can learn,” as she puts it. Or, her “great joy in watching them learn…watching them discover things.” Whatever the reason, these glowing remarks are about someone, surprisingly, who never even wanted to be a teacher.
Dr. Turnquist, a teacher in the Omaha Public School System for 39 years (1964-2003), says she had planned to go directly to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts degree. “I wanted to become a producing artist,” she explains, “but I took just enough education courses to be certified as a kind of insurance policy.”
That, of course, was before she ever stepped into a classroom. “I did my first semester of student teaching,“ she recalls, “and fell in love with it…with the kids, with the process, with the whole concept of public education.” She adds, “I myself was a product of public education, but I had never fully comprehended the significance of it until I stood there in front of all those waiting faces.”
Her long and illustrious teaching career began with three years of teaching in both the old Monroe Junior High and McMillan Junior High schools and ended at Omaha South High School, where she taught for 36 years. And though her teaching days are over, (she admits she misses her students), she is still indirectly impacting them…52,000 of them, to be exact.
In 2003, her dedication to public education led her, quite naturally, to the Omaha Public Schools district office, where she served as Coordinator of Business Services. In 2008, she was named Director of Business Services, and today, she is the Executive Director of District Operational Services, responsible for the many support services for all district students.
Todd Andrews, who works with her as communications director at the district office, says, “At 50-plus years with OPS, Dr. Turnquist is one of the living legends of the district. She has humbly and energetically dedicated her entire professional life to educational excellence. The district is extremely fortunate to have her.”
Looking back on her teaching days, Dr. Turnquist fondly recalls that “one of the first things I discovered at South High was their wonderful diversity, which included Hispanic and Latino as well as Caucasian students, and the whole philosophy at South, which was to implement programs for every student.”
She started out as an art teacher, serving as department chair for the Visual Arts department. One of her former students, Jeff Koterba, a 1979 South High graduate, also recalls those days: “I took Toni’s art classes, and if not for her, I wouldn’t be the artist I am, but more importantly, the man I am,” says Koterba, the longtime editorial cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald. “Because of her belief in me, her patience and her wisdom, I found a better path, the path I was meant to follow.”
Eventually, she chaired the newly-created Fine Arts department, which included Visual Arts, Theater, Drama, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music, and Humanities, giving students many new opportunities, including working at Opera Omaha on local productions.
“It was an exciting time to be a teacher,” she recalls, “as we looked for new avenues of education for our students.” That goal, in fact, led to her and another teacher creating a new course for young women, so they could see what opportunities were available to them, and also to learn about their own history. They called it “Women’s Studies,” and “it proved to be a very popular class.”
Another former student, in fact, can personally attest to that. Lenli Corbett, a 2001 South High graduate, says, “Dr. Turnquist’s Womens’ Studies class was incredibly important to me, to my development as a woman and as a future professional. She brings out the best in you…not every teacher is able to do that.”
When asked if she considers herself successful (her list of achievements include Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers (1994), among many others), Dr. Turnquist quoted Lee Iacocca, who said, ‘Your legacy should be that you made it better than it was when you got it.’ Thus, I would say yes, I think I have been successful both as a teacher and as a central office administrator. What anyone else might think about my success along that line is anyone else’s call, not mine, and I am quite comfortable with that.”
Turnquist says she has no plans to retire anytime soon, either from OPS or her 50-plus years of working as a visual artist. “Some may think it’s strange,” she says, “but I still like getting up every day, getting dressed, and trying to make a difference.”