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Just a Little Daft

By Stephen R. Latham

"One of the activities from which I derive particular pleasure is the doing-in of clergymen," says Jim Sheppe, smiling broadly. "It's quite easy, really; they very rarely put up a struggle. I just knock on their doors and ask them a few earnest questions about their parishes. They're normally quite pleased to invite me in for a little discussion. Then, when they turn away--to consult a text or something--I just..."--he raises his eyebrows conspiratorially--"...slip a little poison into their tea."

James A. Sheppe '82 is well known in Lowell House as an eccentric. Stories of his peculiar habits and actions are a staple part of House lore. "Jim Sheppe?" one student says, "Yeah, I know him. Once I bumped into him in the courtyard, you know? He was wearing these riding pants--what're they called? Jodhpurs--anyway, I asked him why, and he said. 'I'm doing my Jaundry. These are my laundry clothes.'"

Everyone laughs at how odd that is and then the stories begin to fly: Jim Sheppe imitating some obscure bird in the small courtyard. Jim Sheppe wearing a huge leather backpack, tromping into the archway to the tune of an old German march which he is simultaneously singing and conducting in the air. Jim Sheppe convincing an audience of credulous Lowell House diners that he had once accidentally partaken of the flesh of two murdered Italian tourists in Africa. "But you know," one person concludes for the whole table. "I really like him. He's a very nice guy, very funny. He's just an--eccentric." Everyone nods.

And then the topic of conversation changes. No one says anything more about the eccentric Mr. Sheppe. The funny stories and the easy labels have had their effect; they have encouraged everyone to mistake a characteristic for a character, a person with eccentricities for an eccentric. The same stories and labels that make Jim Sheppe well-known keep him from being known well.

"Well-known," of course, is a relative term. Chances are that if you do not live in Lowell House, you do not know Jim Sheppe, or at least do not know a great deal about him. He has not had a famous career in Harvard extra-curricula's; most of his favorite activities have centered either on the House or beyond the confines of the campus altogether.

Among activities of the former sort, Sheppe counts rowing House crew and coaching House cricket as two of his favorite. Cricket he enjoys because of the relaxed atmosphere that prevails at interhouse matches. "No one takes it very seriously, and we all have a lot of fun." Sheppe has also served on House Committee.

But it is from his private relationships with the House's visiting scholars that Sheppe has drawn the greatest satisfaction. Indeed, he counts as his "best times" at Harvard his late-night discussions with academic friends from all over the world.

Such involvement with visiting scholars inevitably benefits not only Sheppe, but the scholars themselves and the House as a whole. "It's really wonderful," Lowell House Secretary Sheila Schimmel comments. "I mean, here are these visiting scholars, not very familiar with the language, intimidated by their surroundings. Normally no one makes the effort to bring them into the flow of House activities. But Jim actively seeks them out, tries to learn about their cultures, picks up bits of their languages. It's terrific. He brings them into the mainstream by making them play with him and with his friends. No one has really ever made that kind of effort before."

Similar effort at reaching out has characterized Sheppe's off-campus activities. An old teacher at Exeter told Sheppe to be sure to look up a friend of his in Cambridge upon his arrival here; the friend was a monk at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastery on Memorial Drive just past the Kennedy School. The two hit it off, and since that time Sheppe has become friendly with all the SSJE brothers, regularly attending services at their chapel and dining with them. He describes his relationship with the brothers as "definitely more social than religious. I've just grown to be very good friends with a number of them."

Another off-campus activity Sheppe pursues is folk dancing with various groups including the Country Dance Society of New England, which meets at the Y in Central Square. "It's really quite a change to dance and to mix with all sorts of people from 60-year-old men to 12-year-old girls," Sheppe says.

Sheppe's academic interests are wide-ranging. The History and Lit major has a certain reputation among his peers for being an Anglophile, perhaps due to his repeated lighthearted threats to organize a New England separatist party to put the northeast "back under the rule of the crown, where it belongs." But Sheppe rejects the label vehemently: "Sure, I'm interested in things British. But I'm just as interested in a number of other things."

Sheppe--who once announced that the English language would be improved if the first-person singular pronoun were eliminated, and then proceeded to converse through an entire meal without using it--is also interested in languages. He will continue his education next year in Germany, where he will study philology on a German scholarship administered in this country by the Fulbright committee. He speaks several European languages in varying degrees of fluency, and has picked up snatches of many languages from students and visiting scholars; he counts a recent course in Arabic as among his favorite at Harvard. Still, the study of language and linguistics in Germany does not seem for Sheppe a goal but a step. "It's nice to know languages," he says, "but in the end it's only a useful skill if you apply it to something else--some other field or problem."

"I've enjoyed Harvard," Sheppe concludes about his stay here. "But I don't think I could stay here for another year. Four years in these red-brick Georgian rabbit hatches can really socialize you, make you depend too much on the community for stimulation. I think we all need some time alone, to allow us to do some inward thinking about goals and projects.

"I'm bothered by what might be called the Catholicism of the university. People in universities seem to believe that no real, legitimate scholarly work can be done outside the hallowed halls. They believe that you're either a part of the academic world, or you're not. The university is the ecclesia, and execclesia non est salus--there is no salvation outside the university."

Sheppe describes a fantasy of his: to establish on one of the more than 2000 islands off the coast of his native Maine a seenic scholarly retreat, with fine facilities for research and academic work in a number of fields. Professional and amateur scholars alike could come to pursue their interests there, with or without the sponsorship of the great universities.

Listening to Sheppe discuss his concerns and his ideas, it is clear he thinks longer--and more imaginatively--than a lot of his peers. "He strikes me as a real intellectual," one acquaintance comments; another adds, "So many people here look down on the discussion of high-minded ideas. What I like about Jim is that he's willing to be open with that kind of discussion. He takes ideas seriously."

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