Take Risks, Ask Hard Questions, Explore New Things: Endowed Professorship Honors Prof. Scott Denham

Scott Denham sits in front of laptop and adds to the conversation

During his senior year, Jon Morris ’94 took his final college course from Professor Scott Denham in concert with Professor Lou Ortmayer: “Postwar German Politics and Culture.” The senior class was notable not only for the thought-provoking subject matter but also for what the students complained was an unreasonable workload.

“Together the class—even the diligent academics—elected a spokesperson to ask why our professors were driving us so hard our senior year,” he recalled. “The German reading, the writing of journals and papers auf Deutsch, the projects. It didn’t make any sense. When we revolted and demanded fair labor practices, Dr. Denham looked at us and basically congratulated the class. Apparently that’s what he was going for. He explained that, in our adult lives, we weren’t going to be able to get it all done, so we should collaborate, do our best work, focus on what’s important and then he would grade what we turned in.”

Looking back on what felt like a frustrating conversation at the time, Morris now knows that is life. There are many moments that will knock a person out of orbit, and those are the times it is vital to focus on what matters most, to be true to one’s principles and to do your personal best. It’s one of many life-academic lessons Morris learned from his German professor.

In appreciation for the ways Denham enriched Morris’ life journey by encouraging his love of learning—and all he brings to countless students’ lives at Davidson through the Humanities Program, German Studies, study abroad and more—Morris has funded an endowed professorship in his honor: the Denham Family Professorship in the Humanities.

“Though Dr. Denham focused on German Studies rather than the Humanities Program during my years at Davidson, he played a critical role in the program’s recent renaissance, and that brings me great joy. The Humes program formed the foundation of my liberal arts education at Davidson,” he said. “I wanted to honor a mentor who embodies the integrity, interdisciplinary thinking, hard work and respectful discourse that makes Davidson so special, while also recognizing the foundational impact of the Humes curriculum on my personal educational experience and the adult life I’ve been blessed to experience. Davidson is where I learned how to learn and developed the intellectual curiosity that has served me so well in my personal and professional life.”

Denham, the Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies, learned about the gift over a drink with Morris and Dan Drayer, a member of Davidson’s College Relations team. There were tears of joy around the table.

“This gift and professorship affirms the role of the humanities in the liberal arts,” Denham said. “It underlines that this is a place to take risks, explore new things, learn to communicate, ask hard questions of yourself and discover how you fit into the histories and cultures you’re studying. The disciplines of the Humanities are at the core of the liberal arts project and a place of real transformation of inherited knowledge. A new endowed professorship means there will be another expert bringing new ideas to our curriculum.”

"Studying the humanities helps students embrace difficulty and ambiguity, disagree with respect and love, asks them to describe and explain and adopt ethical positions, helps them learn to experience beauty and pain in the experiences and stories of others,” Denham said. “Studying the humanities helps students become empathetic, humane citizens."

Morris, who traveled to Germany with Denham and a cohort of 17 students his junior year, said he, his colleagues and Denham shared a meaningful student-faculty relationship during those years in the classroom and while studying in Europe, but they were not frequently in touch after Morris graduated. In 2003 and 2004, the two reconnected through the loss of Morris’ classmate, Stephen Keller ’94, and the creation of the Stephen W. Keller Memorial Scholarship, co-founded by a dozen or so classmates alongside several dozen friends and family members.

Through the scholarship, whose recipients are affectionately named “Keller Fellers,” students already studying abroad are asked to immerse themselves in another culture in Europe beyond their studies, foster international friendships and correspond with and try to visit Stephen Keller’s widow and (now-adult) children, who live in Xanthi, Greece.

In a 2019 Davidson Journal article, Morris explained why his friends created the Feller-ship: “It’s meant for somebody more concerned about the journey than the destination. Someone who has a deep gratitude for life, and doesn’t approach a situation with judgment, but with wonder.”

Davidson alumni studying abroad while students pose in front of yellow bus

From left to right, as described by Morris: Steve Keller ’94 (dressed as a Schildkroete—turtle), Ed Mee (English bloke, dressed as he usually did), Jon Morris ’94 (doing a poor Ed Mee imitation), Susan Beale Reale (’94, leading the way with a liter of Wuerzburg’s best brew), Simon McNaught (English bloke, right before he christened the voyage), DJ Ruggles (’94, also dressed as a Schildkroete, as I recall), Will Dearborn ‘95.

Denham and Keller had that in common. As a teacher, Denham understands the end goal is not a test answer. It’s the thinking and the questioning and the journey that shapes a student.

“The students keep me here,” said the 32-year Davidson educator. “They obligate us to excellence because they are so curious. The classroom is such a rush, every minute, still. Here at Davidson, we have the freedom to build new courses and programs and to create beyond the silo of the department. I’m really proud of that interdisciplinary work—like building that team-taught course with my mentor at Davidson, Lou Ortmayer.”

Deep Ties

The endowed professorship recognizes the Denham family, beyond Scott’s connection to the college. Cathy Rich Denham ’84 is married to Scott. She played a fundamental role in supporting the students when the Denhams led study abroad programs in Germany over the years. His father, Bob Denham, graduated in 1961. Uncles John and Bill graduated in 1959 and 1963, respectively. Scott’s grandfather was pastor at Prospect Presbyterian Church in Mooresville in the 1930s; Davidson College’s charter was signed in the Session House there in 1837.

Davidson flows through Scott’s veins, endowed through family ties and decades of service to the college and his students.

“I grew up in a teacher household; both parents were professors, and when I first began teaching in grad school at Harvard in 1986, I knew this was my calling,” Scott said. “When in 1989 I saw that Davidson was hiring— the job opening was pinned on the bulletin board in the hallway—my dissertation adviser encouraged me to apply. I think he knew I wanted a liberal arts college, and in a way, it felt like I was coming home.”

More than three decades after Davidson hired him on as an assistant professor, complete with a personal letter of gratitude at the time to President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59, the impact of Denham’s teaching and guidance is far-reaching. Morris is proud to be on the long list of lives forever changed by Denham and his alma mater.

On the break room wall at Morris’ company, one might think they’re reading from Davidson College materials. The company focuses on the principles of Collaboration, Accountability and Purpose: Collaboration, because you have to be able to sit down and talk to people; Accountability, because if you say you’re going to do something, you have taken on an obligation to do it; and Purpose, because understanding the “why(s)” behind our work gives it meaning.

Morris still calls his friend “Dr. Denham” all these years later—Denham, he says, will always be his teacher. Now, through the Denham Family Professorship in the Humanities, more minds will be opened to the world’s mysteries; more probing questions will be asked in the family, in class, in the boardroom; more company principles will be developed around the why behind our labors.

“Studying the humanities helps students embrace difficulty and ambiguity, disagree with respect and love, asks them to describe and explain and adopt ethical positions, helps them learn to experience beauty and pain in the experiences and stories of others,” Denham said. “Studying the humanities helps students become empathetic, humane citizens.”

Denham’s practice and Morris’ gift honoring his work and legacy at Davidson guarantee this kind of teaching and learning will be ever more present at Davidson. Whether the workload is unreasonable or not?—the students will have to organize and decide that on their own.