Elizabeth Agness Callaway

1917, Fairbury, Nebraska ‒ 2009, Seward, Nebraska

(Elizabeth Callaway Anderson)
(Elizabeth Callaway Turnbull)

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One of Nebraska’s more creative, accomplished, and energetic women, Elizabeth Callaway was a painter, illustrator, printmaker, photographer, poet, published writer, mountain climber, and avid traveler. Her son, John Turnbull, described her as “never one to pass up a chance to see and do more.” As an example, he told of the trip she took in 2000 to Montana to climb the summit of St. Mary’s Peak in the Bitterroot Mountains with friends. At that time, she was 83 years old, and was also enrolled in poetry and photography classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Although Elizabeth spent the most active years of her professional career in California, she kept close ties to Nebraska where she was born and raised in Fairbury. Her parents were Charles and Elizabeth Callaway, and she had two older half-brothers, Marion and Congrave (known as Con). Her father, Charles, married his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Callaway, after the death of his brother, Congrave Clinton Callaway II. During her long life, Charles and Elizabeth’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, had two husbands, two children, a variety of jobs, and periods when life seemed good and not-so-good. Several times in need of being moored up financially and emotionally, she returned to live with her parents on the family farm near Fairbury. Describing the lasting influence this rural place had on her, she told an interviewer: “I grew up with the idea that people are supposed to live outdoors. You come in to eat and sleep, that’s all.” (Rocketeer)

She graduated from Fairbury High School in 1935; attended Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska for two years; and in 1940, graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a B.A. degree from the College of Arts and Sciences. Her art studies included design, drawing, painting, and color harmony. Among her teachers were Dwight Kirsch and Kady Faulkner, both highly respected fine art painters and educators who promoted modernist and regionalist styles.

During her two years at the University, Elizabeth received public recognition. On October 23, 1939, the Lincoln Evening Journal wrote of her as a new staff member on the Daily Nebraskan, the University’s newspaper, and of her cover design for the football season promotional brochure. That same year, she and Mildred Kopac were featured in The Lincoln Star newspaper of December 24 with the heading: “Student Life Mural at N.U. Gradually Taking Form in the Student Union Building.” The description was of them as seniors in the Department of Art, “designing a giant student mural, which when finished early in the spring will be permanently placed in the game room of the building. Miss Kady Faulkner of the art faculty is supervising the work.”

At graduation time, The Lincoln Star newspaper wrote of Elizabeth and two other art students being recognized by a national honorary art organization: “Elizabeth Callaway, Mildred Kopac of Lincoln, and Elaine Pearson of Omaha were awarded Alpha Rho Tau Prizes out of a class of 12. The event was at the home of Professor and Mrs. Dwight Kirsch, 5300 Fairdale Road. The prizes were five dollars each….Lunch was served at small tables and place cards were miniature portfolios.” (June 3, 1940)

In 1941, Elizabeth married Murray Turnbull, a University of Nebraska art student who graduated the year after she received her degree. From that time for several years, her artwork was private while her husband held the art-related paying jobs. They first lived in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was a newspaper artist, and then in Wichita, Kansas, where he was an illustrator for Boeing Aircraft. The summer of 1942 was a special time for both of them as they enrolled in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Located in the valley east of Pike’s Peak, it was a respected art school and initially received major funding for New Deal public art projects such as post office murals. However, when Elizabeth and Murray were there several years later, public art funding had diminished, and emphasis was on regionalist subjects through painting, sculpture, and printmaking. The Turnbulls associated with many prestigious artists such as Boardman Robinson, who was Director, and teachers including Lawrence Barrett, Otis Dozier, and Rico Lebrun. Elizabeth, who had interest and skill in printmaking, was likely much influenced by Barrett, whose special medium was lithography. Among her painting and lithography subjects were the mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor, Colorado. Of this time at Colorado Springs, son John said: “She talked about that summer often.”

However, the positive experiences in Colorado were countered by events in Europe, and the Turnbulls, like so many other Americans, had their lives totally re-directed. When Murray was drafted in 1943, Elizabeth took a job in Chicago as a writer for Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. After she gave birth to son John in 1944, she returned to family in Fairbury until the war was over. She and her baby joined her husband in Great Falls, Montana, when he returned from the South Pacific where he had been an Army Air Corps weather observer, but within a few years the marriage ended.

After the war, Murray briefly returned to the Art Department at the University of Nebraska in 1947, teaching a class in perspective, before settling in Hawaii. He lived there to age 95, becoming a prolific fine art painter, stained glass artist, sculptor, and distinguished as Professor of Art and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Hawaii.

In 1948, as a single mother, Elizabeth returned to family near Fairbury, and stayed until she found employment as a telephone operator in Ceresco near Lincoln. In 1950, she married Stanley Anderson, a local farmer, and in 1952, had a daughter, Sue. Six years later, the Andersons divorced. Summarizing that time in her life, she wrote a simple sentence: “Duties of a farm wife took precedence over scholarly pursuits until 1957.”

Elizabeth again returned home to her parents, this time with two children. However, by November 1957, her life was re-directed. She, John, and Sue were in China Lake, California living on the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS), a military base where Elizabeth was working as an Aviation Ordinance technical illustrator. The children were enrolled in naval base schools. This transition happened because of Con Callaway, Elizabeth’s brother and career Naval officer, who was aware both of her talents and of the need for technical illustrators to work with weapons engineers at the NOTS operation. Con was the Executive Officer of the Test Station Airfield. She kept the job for the next 25 years and, much lauded for the quality of her work, did numerous drawings. The most well-known were the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, Walleye TV guided bomb, and the HARM air-to-ground missile.

Ironically the new position did not give Elizabeth much chance to be with her brother because, two weeks after she arrived, he retired from the U.S. Navy after 30 years of service. He moved to Florida where he took a job with Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) as Assistant Manager of the Polaris Missile Test Base at Cape Canaveral.

For Elizabeth the years in California brought great satisfaction. She had settled with her children in a vital, goal-driven community of skilled, intelligent persons. She thrived both as a professional and as a person with leisure-time activities including photography and mountain climbing. About photography, she described it as “opening up a whole new world for me.” (Boultinghouse) Her son John recalled her as a determined picture-taker, who during his childhood used “a range finder camera for a number of years….I remember her taking notes about the camera settings for each shot when I was still in grade school.” In the 1960s, after returning from his duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, he gave her a single lens reflex Pentax Spotmatic, the model of camera he had used in the military. With this, she elevated her photography to fine art by adjusting lenses for unique perspectives such as close ups of “ripples on a pond”. (Rocketeer) Also using this camera, she did a 70-mile photographic excursion with nine members of her mountain rescue climbing group. Combining their photos, they created a slide show for a fundraising project.

During the time she lived in California, both as a part of rescue teams and just for personal pleasure, she had hiked and skied in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, climbing more than 175 peaks in California, Nevada, and Colorado, including Mount Whitney, the highest in the lower 48 states. As part of the mountain climbers officially-named China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, Elizabeth was their first woman member. Officially licensed, she went on numerous rescue operations including on Mount Whitney, Telescope Peak, and Balch Park, a picnic area where many people got lost. She also designed the group’s arm patch, “a silhouette of Mount Whitney with an ice ax and a coil of rope.” (Rocketeer) Sharing stories about her experiences, she described how she and other members practiced “man-tracking, which involved walking Indian style, looked for scruff marks, broken twigs, crushed rabbit pellets ‒ these things tell a story.” (Rocketeer)

In May 1982, Elizabeth retired from the Naval Ordinance Station, but she stayed in the area for another five years to be near friends and the many mountains she loved to photograph and climb. Her home during that time was in the nearby town of Lone Pine in the shadow of Mount Whitney.

In 1987, she said a final goodbye. Looking back on those years, she wrote this poem.

“I regret
a half-dozen mountains
I meant to climb
Backpacked in three times
to the lake below Split Mountain
and never made the summit.”

Elizabeth next moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where she purchased a townhouse and centered her life on painting, literature, photography, and writing. She also took time in 1991 to honor her Callaway family heritage by officially changing her name to Elizabeth Callaway, dropping last names in her signature of husbands, Turnbull and Anderson.

In Lincoln, she entered paintings in exhibitions of the Lincoln Artists’ Guild. Her oil painting, Village Street, is now in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art, courtesy of the Artists’ Guild. She enrolled in the University of Nebraska, earned a Master’s degree in English Literature in 1994, and took additional University classes including photography and poetry.

Before her return to Nebraska, Elizabeth had traveled extensively including to England in 1975 and 1978, and in the mid 1980s to Japan and Vladivostok, Russia where she boarded the Siberian Railway to Moscow. In the 1980s she drove with her beloved German Shepherd dog, Festus, throughout the American Southwest. There she did exploring and collecting, especially related to the Indian culture. In 2003, indulging her love of the Southwest, she packed up her books and rocks and moved from Lincoln to Cortez, Colorado where she could be close to mountains, people, and a culture that appealed to her.

However, age was making demands, and four years later, in 2007, Elizabeth, having told her family that her “warranty had run out,” again moved back to Nebraska. She chose to live in Seward, because it was between her son and family in York and her many friends in Lincoln. She died at age 91 on May 1, 2009 in Seward.

Ancestry.com, Oct. 2016

“Birth of the Fine Arts Center,” Colorado Fine Arts Center-The History, Web, Oct. 2016

China Lake Alumni, Web, 2016

Christiansen, Minte, “Alpha Rho Tau: An Honorary Focused on Beauty,” Hillsdale College Student Clubs, Web, 2016

Honolulu Star-Advertiser, newspaper: Tsai, Michael, “Murray Turnbull: 1919-2014”

Kirsch, Dwight and Jo Ann Kelly Alexander, My Life in Art: The Dwight Kirsch Biography, Unpublished, Print

Museum of Nebraska Art files: York News Times, newspaper: 5/21/2009

Rocketeer (China Lake, California), newspaper: 1975 or 1976, “Employee in the Spotlight” Courtesy of John Turnbull.

The Lincoln Star, newspaper: 12/24/1939, 6/3/1940,10/23/1940, 9/1/2014

Turnbull, John, Personal Interview, York, Nebraska, October 12, 2016, and follow up emails to Lonnie Dunbier. John Turnbull is the son of Elizabeth Callaway and Murray Turnbull.

Valley Living (Ridgecrest, California), newspaper: 5/7/1982, Boultinghouse, Vivian, “Elizabeth Anderson deep in photography” Courtesy of John Turnbull.

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project: Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945

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Elizabeth Turnbull, Village Street, oil on board, n.d.