John Lunsford: Mentor, Advisor, Friend

John Lunsford’s passing marks not just the loss for many individuals of a beloved colleague and former professor but also the loss of a living link to an earlier era.  As pre-Columbian curator at the Dallas Museum of Art for thirty years, director of the Meadows Museum, and professor of art history at SMU, John was indispensable in the cultural history of Dallas over the past sixty years.  Always self-effacing, he skillfully passed on this vast reservoir of knowledge and experience to those of us fortunate enough to have known him.  For example, John proved to be an invaluable resource for me and the other staff members of Jerry Bywaters Special Collections, Ellen Buie Niewyk and Emily George Grubbs.  Mr. Bywaters had been instrumental in launching the careers of John, Ellen and me.  But John had a slight head start, having been hired as an assistant curator at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the DMA) in the 1950s when Jerry Bywaters was its director.  Having worked with him for so many years, John definitely had helpful thoughts about organizing the collection, a collection development policy and, of course, exhibitions; his ideas proved to be especially valuable after Mr. Bywaters’ death in 1989.

The consummate professional, John was an outstanding role model in many ways.  For example, he was a gentleman who maintained high standards but personified the adage of disagreeing without being disagreeable.  Conversations with John (often over lunch at Cisco Grill) were wide ranging and sometimes had surprises for me, Ellen, and Emily.  For example, we learned that John’s many ties to SMU began even before his birth, when future SMU president Umphrey Lee, an ordained Methodist minister, performed the wedding ceremony of John’s parents.  In relating this and other tales of his family, it became clear that John was very proud—but not prideful–about his deep Texas roots. We greatly enjoyed and learned from his reminiscences of growing up in Oak Cliff, his globetrotting stories (including his bird watching exploits), and his thirty years at the DMA.  On more than one occasion, he and I discussed our shared affinity for the writings of C.S. Lewis, specifically Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.

It is well-nigh impossible for me to put into words the many ways that I and countless other individuals benefitted from knowing John Lunsford.  Perhaps the most fitting tribute to him came in 1995, when the Dallas Visual Arts Center named him as the recipient of its “Legend” award.  That was perfect for John, since he personified that word in every way.

Blog post: Sam Ratcliffe, former Director, Bywaters Special Collections
Image: courtesy of Meadows Museum

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