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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Purdue's 'Bug Man' moving on after 45 years at university

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Saturday, May 20, 2017 01:02 am

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Without hesitation or stutter, Tom Turpin perfectly recited the first stanza of Robert Frost's "My Butterfly."

Then he began another insect-themed Frost poem.

"An ant on the tablecloth ran into a dormant moth of many times his size. He showed not the least surprise," recited a wide-eyed Turpin, sporting a silver belt buckle engraved with a butterfly.

The "Bug Man," as Turpin's commonly referred to, truly lives up to his name. The entomologist's jam-packed office in Purdue University's Smith Hall is surrounded by bug paraphernalia. His windows are covered in bright green, butterfly-patterned drapes. A straw hat decorated in butterfly broaches sits atop a coat hanger. Containers of live cockroaches sit beneath his desk.

In his 45 years at Purdue, Turpin has made a name not only for himself but for the university's entomology department. From creating the popular Bug Bowl at Purdue to educating people across the state and country about the important role of crawly critters, Turpin has had a rich and decorated career.

But now the Bug Man is ready to take a step back from some of his many educational endeavors. Turpin, who will be 74 next month, is retiring from Purdue in June.

Why did he choose now to retire? Turpin put it simply: "I'm getting old."

"I decided a few years ago I can't do it forever," he said.

But with all the energy and enthusiasm Turpin has for education and, of course, insects, his role and legacy as the Bug Man will live on well past his days at Purdue.

"His innovativeness is probably his biggest contribution, not just to entomology, but to the university as a whole," said Arwin Provonsha, the former curator of insect collections at Purdue.

After teaching for a short stint at an Iowa high school then at Iowa State University, Turpin came to Purdue in the early 1970s as a researcher, although he taught a graduate class every other year.

He continued in that role for 15 to 20 years, all while pushing for the department to develop a course that would attract the general student population to learn about insects. Leaders, however, weren't convinced.

"We had this need, I thought, to reach beyond our standard people taking entomology who required it for their discipline," Turpin said. "I kept arguing that we as a department need to introduce a class for non-science people. We need more people to take entomology."

When the department finally got on board, the head chose Turpin to teach the class. He advertised it and asked academic advisers to promote it, but on the first day only six students were there and the course needed seven students to continue. Turpin yelled out the window for a student walking on the sidewalk to come in. He pleaded with the student, who didn't know what entomology was, to enroll and, after his lecture, the student agreed.

That course eventually became a favorite at Purdue, with nearly 500 students enrolled each semester.

Bug Bowl had a similar beginning. It started out as an extra credit activity in which students raced cockroaches one evening 27 years ago. A local radio station heard about it and, unbeknownst to Turpin, invited the town to come watch and about 130 people showed up.

"I thought, gee, that's really something," he said. "It suddenly dawned on me there's not a lot to do in Lafayette in the springtime than go to a cockroach race."

The next year, Turpin cooked insects for the event as part of an "insects as food" talk and nearly 1,000 people came out. It kept growing every year and eventually joined other campus events until it officially became Spring Fest, an annual event in which departments from across the university showcase the fun, "lighter side" of their work to the public.

"He didn't have full support of Purdue's administration when we started Bug Bowl and Tom was willing to go ahead even though he was counseled not to do it," Provonsha said. "They wouldn't even unlock the doors for us in its first years. We had to put a stick in the door so people could come in."

Turpin has "a-ha moments," Provonsha said, and has the ability to bring big picture ideas to life.

One of those moments occurred during a Bug Bowl, when Turpin was overseeing graduate students sautéing crickets. A visitor at the booth said, "'I couldn't put a cricket in my mouth. If I put a cricket in my mouth I'd spit it from here to that tree,' and I thought hmm contest," Turpin said.

So at the next Bug Bowl, he wore a specially-made tuxedo lined in bug-design material and a top hat as 1,000 people lined up to spit crickets. Now, the university has a field that's dedicated to the annual cricket spitting contest, in which some people travel long distances to compete.

"It was just fun professionally working with Tom because he made everything so exciting," said Steve Cain, an agricultural communications specialist for Purdue, noting Turpin was the first person ever to get him to eat fried worms.

Turpin's wacky education style also applied in his classes.

He dedicated a lecture period each semester to insect attire, for which he'd wear his bug tuxedo and have his teaching assistants sport clothing and accessories that featured insects. All of the assistants would have insect-themed boxers on and, one by one, they'd drop their pants to show off their bug boxers.

"Then they'd get to me and ask if I had any insect motif, so then I would drop my tuxedo pants and show my butterfly boxers," Turpin laughed.

His daughter, Suzanne Upton, remembers that as a particularly embarrassing moment from when she took his class, which she jokingly said she enrolled in because it was an "easy A."

"I don't really know any other dads quite like him," she said, as she described growing up around a lot of bugs and with a local celebrity as a father.

Like many of those close to Turpin, Upton said she can't imagine her always on-the-go father not working at Purdue.

"I really can't fathom him retiring," she said. "It's hard for me to picture what his day would look like."

Eldon Ortman, who was the head entomology department for 16 years before retiring in 2001, predicts a not-so-relaxing retirement for his friend.

"I'm not sure Tom can retire," he said. "My view is that Tom will continue to be in demand at various kinds of group functions. .Those kind of opportunities will continue and Tom is not likely to say no."

That will likely be the case. Turpin said he'll continue to speak at events and give presentations at Indiana schools. He also plans to continue his bimonthly "On Six Legs" column for Purdue Extension, though maybe a shorter version of it, and will likely keep producing a podcast for it.

But as far as mapping out his immediate future, Turpin would rather take it day-by-day.

"I'm not going to plan anything," he said. "I just kind of want to live in the moment."

It'll be a well-deserved break for someone who has made such significant contributions to Purdue and to the entomology community

"He's been a very good front-man for entomology," Provonsha said. "There's a time for all of us to pass on the torch to the next generation."

And although Turpin's daily presence at Purdue will be sorely missed by the university community, he promises he'll be around.

He still has to clean out his office, after all.

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