Twitty J. Styles, professor emeritus of biology, was revered as a teacher who challenged his students, respected as a mentor who made lifelong friendships and admired as a leader whose ambitious vision helped forge a welcoming community that celebrates difference.
He died Aug. 19, 2021, at the age of 94.
Styles taught at Union from 1965 to 1997. In 1971, he was the first African-American faculty member to earn tenure.
An immunologist by training, he specialized in infectious diseases, particularly parasitology and immunity to parasitic infections. He was a frequent speaker at professional conferences and worked at clinics in developing countries. He led the College’s AIDS Committee and was active in regional AIDS awareness programs.
When he retired in 1997 with colleague and close friend Carl George, professor emeritus of biology, the pair launched UNITAS, which Styles described as “a campus-wide organization whose primary mission is to support and encourage diversity, acceptance and the celebration of cultural differences.” To fund UNITAS, Styles and George wrote letters to hundreds of former students. They quickly raised $50,000, an amount matched by the College.
“Fittingly, Prof. Styles and his wife, Dr. Constance Glasgow, were among the first people to welcome us to Union,” said President David R. Harris. “In addition to his well-established reputation as a teacher and mentor, Twitty was committed to building a community that welcomes all and celebrates the diversity that is our strength. I know that his legacy will live on through the initiatives he championed and the many colleagues and alumni who have been lifted by his wisdom, empathy and courage.”
Styles earned his bachelor’s from Virginia Union University, and his master’s and Ph.D. from New York University.
Born May 18, 1927, in rural Virginia, Styles was first named Winfield but renamed Twitty after a late uncle. The youngest of eight children, his mother passed away when he was 3.
Styles attended Moton High School in Farmville, Va., while it was still segregated. (It was among the first schools to be desegregated after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.) At Moton, his math teacher was Dorothy Vaughn, the “colored computer” played by Octavia Spencer in the 2017 film “Hidden Figures” about the women behind the scenes in early NASA projects. Vaughn and other teachers were highly influential. After earning his bachelor’s in biology from Virginia Union University, he joined them at Moton to teach science from 1948 to 1950.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, he was assigned to a medical lab in Tokyo that specialized in exotic diseases. “I became an expert on infectious diseases, and I was really stimulated by the work and all the wonderful people around me,” he wrote.
In 2019, he wrote a memoir, “Son of Prince Edward County,” a book that provides frank accounts of some of the challenges he faced as an African American. He writes that as late as 1965, when he arrived in Schenectady, he and his wife faced rental restrictions against Black families. They lived temporarily in a home outside of the city that used rainwater from a cistern. He brought bottles of drinking water home from Union. Eventually, they bought a home in Clifton Park, where Style’s wife, Dr. Constance Glasgow, was a prominent pediatrician, and where they raised their two children, Scott and Auria.
Styles received the Faculty Meritorious Service Award from the Alumni Council. Of his teaching, he once said. “I always told [my students], ‘Stay with it, you can do the work, put your studies first, and do what you're capable of doing.' “They needed to know that someone cared about them and somebody wanted them to succeed. That's what I've tried to convey all these years.”
“The best measure of a professor's success is how a student feels about you,” he said. “Your student is your final product. They and their success are the final judges of who you are and what you did for them.”
To pay tribute to their teacher and mentor, Trustees Fred Pressley Jr. '75 and Estelle Cooke-Sampson '74 helped establish the Professor Twitty J. Styles Scholarship in 2003.
When Styles and George retired together in 1997, they hosted a nearly four-hour event that featured performances from cultures around the world. They were to leave campus in a hot air balloon, but high winds scuttled their planned exit.
George recalled his friend as “remarkably kind, generous and outreaching. He had a global perspective and wide-ranging interests and he was so socially adroit.”
Styles and his wife were widely traveled and collected art including stone carvings from Africa, George said. Styles also collected frog figurines, a fitting hobby for someone whose fascination with biology began with a frog dissection. “Frogs were important to him,” George said.
Styles was especially proud of his wife, Connie, whose many accolades he displayed in their home, George said.
Styles was a popular figure at alumni events, according to Damond Heath ’10, senior associate director of Alumni and Parent Engagement. Heath also knew Styles as the “elder statesman” of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically Black fraternity. The professor joined as an undergraduate in 1946 and helped charter the PiPi chapter at Union in 1983.
Another alumnus, D. Dapo Akinleye ’02, recalled Styles’ seven decades of service to the fraternity and service organization. “I was fortunate enough to join as a freshman at Union in 1999 and shared a deep bond with Twitty personally and through our membership in this philanthropic organization, which he served for over 75 years,” said Akinleye, who as a senior served as president of Union’s chapter of APA and is currently the alumni advisor for students.
“Brother Styles had style, wisdom, humor and compassion, attributes which will be missed by the frat, the institution and all those who knew him. I will cherish his memories, mourn among his loved ones and hereafter promise to “pay it forward” while I reflect on his mentoring presence in all of our lives,” said Akinleye, an epidemiologist with the New York State Department of Health and the Office of Quality and Patient Safety.
As news of his passing spread, many took to social media to share their thoughts about Styles.
Lorraine Morales Cox, associate professor of visual arts and chair of the Visual Arts Department, posting on Facebook, wrote, “He was the first person to truly welcome me with open arms when I came to Union 20 years ago. We had many meaningful conversations, and I will never forget, especially those moments when I doubted myself, when he said, with that sweet charming southern drawl ‘Lorraine, you're a breath of fresh air!’ He probably had no idea how many times I called on that moment as a new faculty member trying to advance equity and inclusion and find my place at Union College.”
Angela Tatem joined Union in 2003 and was director of the Kenney Community Center from 2008 to 2020. She first met Styles, when, as a middle school student, she participated in the College’s STEP program.
“Professor Twitty Styles was a pillar in the Union College community,” she wrote on Facebook. “The first Black man to become a professor at the College, a highly respected mentor and friend. He was instrumental in making so many opportunities available to Black and Brown students especially. Personally, he was a strong and loving mentor and always encouraged Elroy (her husband, a 2006 alumnus) to earn his doctorate degree. He encouraged me as well in my role at Union serving as the STEP Program director and called me weekly to give advice, encouragement and see how my family and students were doing. We will never see such a kind and amazing man again.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the Professor Twitty J. Styles Endowed Scholarship Fund at Union College.
Calling hours are set for Thursday, Aug. 26, and Friday, Aug. 27, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Shenendehowa United Methodist Church, 971 Rte. 146, Clifton Park, NY 12065. COVID precautions will be in place.
Plans for a campus memorial are underway.