Profile By: Christopher Shavlik
There is no question that there have been many exceptional women throughout the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) history. We have names and numbers that can be used to tell the story of our university, but it’s the details that reveal the profound struggles and triumphs of individual people shaping our university. What better way to illustrate this point than to examine the life of a former professor who believes in the importance of details? A storyteller, a historian, and an exceptional woman, Dr. Marian Purrier Nelson inspired her students to study history and to make history by not being afraid to fight the good fight.
Marian Purrier was born April 11, 1939 in rural Mankato, Minnesota. She has one brother named Monroe (also known as “Monty”). Marian was born into a predominantly agrarian household. Her father, David, did not whole-heartedly support her pursuit of higher education.
David Purrier was an intimidating figure. He was a farmer of English and French decent, towering over most at six-foot-four with gray eyes and black hair. David simply did not understand Marian’s hunger for education. The youngest of seven, David received the most education on his side of the family, getting as far as the eighth grade, but he used to tell Marian that “school didn’t teach him anything” (Interview Nov. 30). David did not want his daughter to pursue higher education because he, along with his brothers (one of whom had only made it as far as third grade), believed
Marian Purrier Nelson moved to Omaha in March 1964 and began working on her master’s degree in history at Omaha University (OU). She also was hired as a teaching assistant, the only woman in the pool of ten. In 1966, Marian was offered an adjunct position at OU to teach a night course each semester on Ancient History—history of the Near East and Greece and history of Rome. In the summer of 1967, after Marian had earned her master’s degree, a position opened when a member of the history department faculty left. Dr. Stanley Trickett, who was Chair of the Department of History, offered Marian a full-time job.
Although Marian was elated with the opportunity, there was a problem. According to Marian, “If you became pregnant while working, in most cases you were not allowed to continue in your job as
Between raising her newborn daughter, teaching history at the university, and pursuing her PhD in Lincoln, Marian had little time to get involved with politics during the OU-NU merger. However, she soon made time for activism after encountering numerous challenges as a female faculty member. First, despite her hard work, women were simply not paid the same as men. According to a Gateway article in 1989, the wage gap between men and women in the Arts and Sciences was approximately $1,889 (“Salary Differences”).
Secondly, she decided it was time to have another baby and was subsequently pregnant while working on her dissertation. One of the graduate committee members, who shall remain unnamed, walked over to her one day and patted her tummy before saying, “I thought you were serious about this” (Interview Nov. 30). Marian was shocked. She later talked with
Dr. Marian Nelson received the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1992 for her dedication to her students. Out of all the possibilities available to her, she chose to teach history because history is a rich story she felt compelled to share (Interview Nov. 16). A combination of enthusiasm and attention to details made her classes popular and inspiring. Kurt Austin, a former student, describes Marian’s class:
I remember her as pretty no-nonsense, but with a good, dry sense of humor, and she was a terrific lecturer. It’s funny, but much of the professional literature about teaching these days (such as the material I work on for National Council of Teachers of English) emphasizes the value of student-centered group work and discussion, and it frowns on classes where the teacher just holds forth from the front of the room. But I always
In 2000, Dr. Marian Purrier Nelson retired from UNO due to chronic illness. Having to leave UNO was hard for her because of she loved teaching, which she has missed the most. Marian has had little to no involvement with the University or AAUP since her departure. However, many of her former students continue to pursue their love for history, some becoming teachers as well. Marian fought inequality within UNO and helped gain the AAUP’s first wage agreement and contract, which would close the wage gender gap. Like her mother, Erna, Marian encouraged her two daughters, Danielle and Nicole, to graduate from college, which they both did. Danielle graduated from UNO with a Business major and Psychology minor. Nicole graduated from UNL with an English and Psychology major and would later get a master’s degree in Forensic Science.