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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Last dean of students Archie Epps Dies at 66

By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp, Crimson Staff Writer

Almost 450 people gathered in Memorial Church on Thursday, Sept. 4, for a service to remember former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.

Epps, who served for 28 years as Harvard’s last dean of students, died Thursday, Aug. 21, of complications from heart surgery. He was 66.

In a eulogy at the service, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes likened his longtime friend to a complicated “work of art” by God.

“So many of us have struggled to do for Archie in death what it was impossible to do for him in life, which is to place him in a convenient category, or to define him,” Gomes said. “In death, let us not make him any less complicated than he was in life, for that would be a grave disservice.”

In his address, which elicited fond laughs from the audience several times, Gomes pointed out Epps’ eclectic interests and priorities as part of what made his life “an illustration of the good life.”

“He served Harvard better than Harvard served him,” Gomes said, “but it did not trouble him.”

“He kept his office as something of a shrine to Harvard’s past…for the sake of the future,” Gomes continued. “I believe that Archie actually believed every word of ‘Fair Harvard.’”

He was often seen walking across the Yard “as someone would perambulate across his own garden,” according to Gomes.

“Archie glided,” he said. “He was grounded, but his feet never touched the ground.”

The memorial service was attended by a host of former deans and administrators, as well as by family, friends and alumni. Those paying their respects ranged from University President Lawrence H. Summers to former professor Cornel R. West ’74.

Colleagues remember Epps as an advocate for improving student life, a dean who was unafraid to stand alone in policy debates and a central figure in efforts to improve race relations at the College.

During his tenure as dean of students, which spanned from 1971 until 1999, Epps presided over a host of changes concerning student life: final clubs lost official College recognition, the Undergraduate Council was instituted, the first-year dining hall was moved from the Freshman Union to Memorial Hall and Loker Commons was constructed, among other changes.

Even his departure constituted a change, as former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 dissolved the dean of students post after Epps stepped down, dividing his responsibilities among three associate deans.

“Throughout his long tenure there, Archie gave everything of himself to the College and to its students,” Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. ’59 said in a statement. “His firm, often very firm, guidance as well as his deep sympathy for those in difficulty benefited very many students of all backgrounds, as well as the College itself.”

Epps was an easily recognizable figure on campus, sporting his trademark pinstriped suit and bow tie as he took jaunts through the Yard, lunched in Loker and interacted with students. His wife, Valerie C. Epps, a professor of law at Suffolk University, noted with an affectionate, reminiscent laugh that Epps owned “well over 50 bow ties” at the time of his death.

Epps was unafraid to be an outspoken advocate of his policy stances, often throwing his weight behind projects opposed by Lewis and publicly disagreeing with his boss about the nature and aim of Harvard’s undergraduate education. He prided himself on independent thought.

At the memorial service, Gomes said that Epps offered “wise—and often unsolicited—counsel to at least three presidents and countless deans.”

“I come out of the tradition of the solitary dean,” Epps had said.

And this self-image led him to pursue his own agenda.

“I was a free-ranging citizen who spoke with whomever needed to be spoken with,” Epps said in 2000.

In 1984, Epps oversaw the stripping of official College recognition from final clubs and fraternities that would not permit membership from both genders, and in 1997, he issued a report that condemned the clubs.

“To me, they still represent anti-intellectual, highly social, high-risk activities for students,” Epps said in 1995 of fraternities and sororities.

At the same time, Epps said that it was difficult “for students to meet each other” and acknowledged “a weakness in social life” that led him to push for the creation of Loker Commons. Epps in later years challenged Lewis’ opposition to the creation of a student center.

In addition to his activism in policy matters, Epps was known as someone who touched students at a personal level.

“In conversation with him he was very warm and approachable,” Eric R. Rosenbaum ’01 said of Epps while he was dean.

These two sides of his job came together in May 1995 when Sinedu Tadesse ’96 stabbed and killed her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho ’96, before committing suicide. Epps held a series of meetings with students and administrators to provide a forum for discussing the tragedy. The murder led students and personnel to question the effectiveness of Harvard’s House advising system and its counseling and support resources.

As an associate dean in 1969, Epps experienced first-hand the social upheavals on campus during the tumultuous period. When University Hall was taken over by the Students for a Democratic Society, Epps resisted the takeover and was physically carried out of the building by the students.

Gomes said at the service that Epps was completely calm—if somewhat profane in his language—when he was carried out of University Hall “as if in a sedan chair.”

“He guided the College with a steadying hand through turbulent seas and in calm waters, he nudged the administration with wisdom and vast experience, and he elicited true affection and respect from both the students and his colleagues in University Hall,” former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles said in a statement.

One of the most prominent black administrators at the College, Epps attempted to facilitate race relations on campus. While a teaching fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1964, he examined in a piece published in The Crimson how the Civil Rights Movement had reached an impasse. As an associate dean, he published in The Crimson another piece on the meaning of Malcolm X’s death.

Epps edited a book, The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, which was published in 1967 and reissued in 1991.

Epps’ stances, however, did not always coincide with those of black student leaders on campus. He expressed opposition to the approach of reformers who focused solely on racial matters.

“They should move towards improving the economic conditions of the lower classes in general, instead of just protesting Negro unemployment,” he said in 1966.

He also opposed the creation of a third-world center at a time when other universities were instituting them, he criticized the College for admitting too many unqualified black students, and he was often chided for not being militant or political enough in pushing for equality.

Even though he insisted that he was not “Dean of Negro students,” he said he remained interested in black Harvard students’ plight “because I know the pain one goes through upon encountering new, integrated situations.”

In the early 1990s, Epps was named Harvard’s race coordinator. The move was a response to the mounting racial tensions on campus that followed the Black Students Association’s (BSA) invitation to controversial City University of New York professor Leonard Jeffries to hear his allegations that Jews were complicit in the African slave trade.

Epps published the University’s first race-relations handbook in 1992, and he pushed for the screening of a film series on diversity in 1996.

The board of the BSA honored Epps after his death in a message to the organization’s e-mail list, calling him “a great man” and noting that he was going to be honored in October at the Black Alumni Weekend hosted by the association.

On several occasions in the 1960s, while Epps was touring with the Harvard Glee Club, the group traveled to perform in locales where blacks were unwelcome. On one occasion in 1965, Peabody Professor of Music Elliot Forbes ’40 reportedly received bomb threats because of plans for Epps to participate in a Birmingham, Ala., concert. Epps was “quietly, deeply upset” when the Glee Club performed without him at the show, Glee Club Secretary William White ’65 said at the time.

Epps’ incident with the Glee Club also highlighted his passion for music. He not only sang with the Glee Club as a student at the Divinity School, but he also later served as its assistant director. While he was assistant senior tutor of Leverett House, he regularly helped put on operas. He was occasionally guest conductor of the Harvard Band during football halftime shows.

“There wasn’t any form of music he didn’t like,” Valerie Epps recalled of her husband, who was also a trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Epps was raised in Louisiana and graduated from Talladega College in Alabama before matriculating at the Divinity School. He became a teaching fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1961 and was appointed assistant dean of the College in 1964.

Epps met his wife when he was assistant dean and she was working in Harvard’s registrar’s office as editor of the course catalogue.

During a 1967 Faculty meeting in Sanders Theatre, Epps saw his future wife—who was charged with ensuring that only people with identification entered—disallowing entry to well-known poet Robert Lowell, who was at Harvard at the time. Lowell had forgotten his identification, and Epps eventually told the employee from the registrar’s office that she should allow Lowell to attend the meeting.

Epps asked the woman out to lunch the next day. The day after that, he proposed.

Valerie Epps said that she didn’t take the proposal seriously.

“I was sufficiently interested to hope it wasn’t a joke, though,” she added.

Epps, who suffered from diabetes, had previously experienced health troubles while dean. He underwent double-bypass heart surgery in August 1995, and he received a kidney transplant four months later from his wife.

“It’s important that I protect her investment,” Epps told The Crimson at the time.

Epps’ wife said her husband went into Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston the Monday before his death to undergo surgery for an aneurysm that was discovered in his aorta.

Valerie Epps said that she and her husband were told that the odds of surviving the operation for a completely healthy person were 50 percent, but that without the procedure, death would be imminent.

Epps “made it through the surgery fine,” his wife said.

Two days later, though, his liver failed, eventually leading to his death.

“The way he died was unexpected,” Valerie Epps said. “The fact that he died was not unexpected.”

“During the fall, he really wasn’t well at all. He was in the hospital three times,” she said.

Epps is survived by his wife; by two sons, Josiah T. Epps ’98 and Caleb S. Epps ’03; and by his brothers, Martin L. Epps, of Jackson, Miss., and Heibert G. Epps, of Houston, Texas.

He was buried in Cambridge’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.

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