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Berry Highland Memorial

5315 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN

OBITUARY

Martha Lee Osborne

December 14, 1928October 29, 2019
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Martha Lee Osborne, professor, lecturer, author, and a widely regarded, forward-thinking feminist, died on October 29 in Knoxville. She was 90.

From the 1980s through the mid 90s, Martha Lee was awarded scholarships from the Fulbright Fund for Women's Studies Abroad to travel to China, India, Japan, Ecuador, Brazil, Russia, and countries in the Eastern Bloc to study the role of women. She lectured worldwide on the changing status of women in those societies.

A natural storyteller, Martha Lee captivated everyone she met with her keen wit and elegant beauty. She formed many lasting relationships, including one with a Chinese man who taught her the language. She progressed quickly and delighted an audience by unexpectedly reciting a poem in Chinese.

During a 1994 trip to Japan, Martha Lee visited Knoxville's sister city of Muroran and Oak Ridge's sister city of Naga-Machi. While in Naga-Machi, Martha Lee participated in a ceremony dedicating a peace bell inscribed with the dates of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki to symbolize the importance of cooperation and respect within the international community.

Martha Lee Pennebaker was born on December 14, 1928 in Murray, Kentucky to Gordon Bennett Pennebaker and Dorothy Printz Pennebaker, both college professors. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1950, Martha Lee earned her Master of Arts from Bryn Mawr College in 1951, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

She followed her parents into academia when she was hired as head of the English Department at a small liberal arts college in Waynesboro, VA. In 1954, Martha Lee came to the University of Tennessee, where she met and married her English Department colleague, Durant da Ponte, with whom she had two children.

Rules prohibiting nepotism prevented married faculty members from working in the same department, an issue university administrators tried repeatedly yet unsuccessfully to resolve. Eventually, she was invited to join the Philosophy Department.

Durant was killed in a plane crash in 1964. In 1966 Martha Lee married German professor John Coughlin Osborne, a widowed father of two, with whom she had another child. Martha Lee continued her work in the Philosophy Department focusing on the works of Plato and the philosophy of feminism. In 1981, Martha Lee was named chair of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Tennessee where she would become a force of modern day feminism.

Although Martha Lee's societal impact was vast, few of the countless who admired her locally were aware of the extent of her reach. She was well known within the Knoxville theater community for her many appearances in productions at the Carousel and Knoxville Community Theaters. Widowed again in 2002, Martha Lee reinvented herself and flourished in ways her children could never have imaged. She had the social stamina and calendar of someone decades younger.

She loved movies, music, the Kentucky Derby, politics, traveling, books, fashion, art, surprises, martinis, dinners, her friends, her children, and her grandchildren. She was resilient, progressive, tough, wise, funny, shrewd, stubborn, charming, eloquent, worldly, complicated, popular, kind, loyal, respected, respectful, irreverent, provocative, audacious, unconventional, beautiful, and iconic.

She was preceded in death by her stepdaughter Holliday Gordon and is survived by her sister Judith Pennebaker and nephew Clay Ludlum; her sons, David da Ponte (Laura) and John Osborne (Caroline); her daughter, Graham da Ponte; her stepdaughter, Laurie Osborne (John Beichman); ten grandchildren and a great grandchild.

Services at Berry Highland Memorial Funeral Home, Friday, November 1, 2019, at 5 pm with visitation beginning at 4. Celebration to follow at Cherokee Country Club. In lieu of flowers, have a martini. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/knoxville-tn/martha-osborne-8906622 or www.berryhighlandmemorial.com

Services

  • Visitation Friday, November 1, 2019
  • Funeral Service Friday, November 1, 2019
  • Interment Service Saturday, November 2, 2019

Memories

Martha Lee Osborne

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Katharine Peter Federman

November 5, 2019

Gosh, the memories of Martha Lee are too vast and grand to give light to here.

Nevertheless, we will always keep Martha's memory alive. Be it over a wonderful conversation, a superb meal or a giant martini. Or perhaps just a random, fleeting thought of her great personality and natural friendliness topped by a wide smile.

We are truly grateful for having been included in Martha's life and family circle.

With enduring love,
Katharine + Peter

Donna Sherwood

November 1, 2019

Martha Lee became my champion in the 1970s and made room for me in Women's Studies. I will always be grateful to her. She carefully nurtured that fledgling department and served the university and other women well. My condolences to family members and to all of us who knew her.

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