Distinguished Shakespeare scholar Ann Cook Calhoun dies

Shakespeare scholar Ann Cook Calhoun, PhD’72, professor of English, emerita, was the first woman on the Vanderbilt English faculty to earn tenure through the ranks in 1982. (Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt)

Ann Cook Calhoun, PhD’72, an internationally renowned Shakespeare scholar and a powerful force for making the Bard’s plays accessible to everyone, died Aug. 13 in Nashville after a short illness. She was 82.

Calhoun was a professor of English, emerita, at Vanderbilt University who held leadership roles in Shakespeare organizations around the world.

During the early 1970s, Calhoun helped found what would become the International Shakespeare Association, serving on its board and attending all its World Shakespeare Congresses through the years. She also served as executive secretary of the Shakespeare Association of America.

Calhoun graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma, earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. She was awarded a Danforth Graduate Fellowship at Vanderbilt, where she received her doctorate in 1972.

She joined the Vanderbilt English faculty in 1977, becoming the first woman in her department to earn tenure through the ranks when she was promoted to associate professor five years later.

“[lquote]Ann Cook Calhoun was a highly creative and demanding professor who was known for her vibrant style of teaching literature of the dramatic arts[/lquote],” said Dana Nelson, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and chair of the department. “She had a genuine concern for her students that was reflected in her strong commitment to her teaching and administrative leadership.”

She was named a full professor in 1990, and served as director of undergraduate studies and the English honors program simultaneously.

Calhoun was author of The Privileged Players of Shakespeare’s London, 1576-1642 and Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society, both published by Princeton University Press. She began her academic career as associate editor of Shakespeare Studies.

In 1996 she was named a life trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, a rare honor for an American, especially a woman, at the time. When she decided to step down from the board in 2013, she became an honorary fellow. The next year she became a founding member of Shakespeare’s Birthplace America.

“Ann was always so active and encouraging on our behalf,” said Paul Edmondson, head of research with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. She had hosted him last November in Nashville for a series of talks and workshops.

Ann Cook Calhoun (courtesy of the University of Oklahoma)

Roger Moore, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Science, first met Calhoun when he was a graduate student. “Ann Cook Calhoun was an excellent mentor as well as an elegant hostess who would always be sure to include graduate students at department functions in her lovely home,” said Moore, who is also principal senior lecturer in English.

Moore noted that Calhoun continued her scholarship long after becoming an emerita professor in 1998, with her most recent article published in 2015. She also taught occasionally for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Vanderbilt and for many summers—including this one—at the Sewanee School of Letters.

William E. Engel, a former Vanderbilt professor who now teaches at Sewanee: The University of the South, had worked closely with Calhoun in recent years. “She really knew how to speak to everyone about complicated aspects of Shakespeare, and could definitely hold the audience,” said Engel, who is the Nick B. Williams Professor of Literature. Engel also described her as “big-hearted and generous” in her volunteer commitments.

Calhoun was a major supporter of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, establishing the Ann Jennalie Cook Library Acquisition Fund for Shakespeare Studies. She modestly recalled in an article for the Acorn Chronicle, “It was the library’s idea to name the fund after me. That was not my intent at all. In fact, I would have been perfectly comfortable just to know that they were using that money and the income it produces to buy Shakespeare material.” She also served as president of the Heard Society and the Friends of the Library.

Calhoun was a founding board member of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival and longtime education officer of the Nashville branch of the English-Speaking Union. Engel has fond memories of Shakespeare competitions sponsored by the English-Speaking Union for area high school students. “[rquote]So many young people would never have known the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays without Ann’s commitment to inclusivity[/rquote],” Engel said.

“Ann was one of the first persons who believed in the dream that we had to start the Nashville Shakespeare Festival,” said Denice Hicks, executive director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. “Having a Shakespeare scholar of her prominence in the community has meant so much.”

Later in life, Ann Cook married her teenage sweetheart, Gerry Calhoun, and they were devoted to each other. When she recently became seriously ill, her husband’s health rapidly declined. They were admitted into a hospice and both died on the same day—Aug. 13.

Ann Cook Calhoun is survived by her two married daughters, Lee Ann Merrick and Amy Leonard; four grandchildren; and her siblings, Sue Karcher and David Cook.

A memorial service for Ann Cook Calhoun and Gerry Calhoun will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 11 a.m. at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville. Prior to the service, family members will receive visitors from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the following: Christ Church Cathedral’s Room In The Inn program (checks can be made out to Christ Church Cathedral and sent there), the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, and Alive Hospice.