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.