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Epes Retires From Long Academic Career of Many Titles, With 'Teacher' Foremost Among Them

Hansford Epes in his youth
The young Professor Epes.

Hansford Epes remembers the first time he saw Davidson, as a prospective student in spring 1957. He had the same reaction then that many have had before and since.

"I walked out onto the campus and it just felt right," Epes says.

Now in spring 2012, he looks out his office window on the first floor of Chambers. "I didn't realize at the time this was the building I would spend a huge percentage of my life sitting in!"

Registrar and Professor of Humanities and of German Hansford M. Epes '61 is retiring after more than 55 years of direct association with Davidson College. For many people---perhaps for most people, and perhaps for Epes himself---the fact of his impending departure is taking some time to compute.

In fact, computing itself is one of the campus legacies to which Epes has contributed mightily in more than half a century, from the earliest days of green LED screens and dot-matrix printers to today's online everything.

"German professor helps colleagues with another foreign language-computer talk!" reads the headline on a 1984 Davidson Update article about Epes' work as director of academic computing.

"I thought it was probably useful to get more of the faculty on board, and for the college to do more than it had been doing in IT," he deadpans now.

He is known for his wit, usually wry and dry, occasionally sharp, always gentlemanly. He is known for linguistic prowess, too, and so a quick etymological lesson is in order here.

"Legacy" comes from the Latin past participle of legare, "to depute, bequeath," legatus, "one delegated." Over more than half a century, Epes has often been called on as 'one delegated' to serve in many important areas of the life of Davidson College.

He began by teaching eight classes per year in 1964-65, the normal teaching load then. Leading students on JYA Germany adventures soon followed. Later Epes would go on to champion international education as the college's study abroad coordinator for a time, as well as to chair the department of German and Russian.

From the beginning, Epes also was willing to bring his scholarly mind, quick wit, and occasionally acerbic tongue to important college discussions ranging from faculty governance and academic accreditation to alcohol policy, from fraternity life to student-faculty relations. He has served on the faculty's educational policy committee and the curriculum requirements committee. From the "Blue Skies" academic shifts in the '60s to current strategic planning, many of the college's most far-reaching thought processes and documentation bear Epes' imprint, either as principal author or substantial contributor.

"It is useful periodically to step back and take a look at what you're doing and why, and to look broadly," he says. "We're always in a period like that. Academic institutions are masters of navel-gazing. They are inhabited by a profession that is, or wishes to be, visionary. We are at least wise enough to know that whatever it is we're doing, we could be doing better. And whether the tower is made of ivory or of bricks, it is not in fact insulated from the world around it."

Hansford Epes speaking to a new class of Davidson students
Epes has been for many years the primary speaker in addressing new students during Orientation about the importance of the Honor Code.

Over the decades, Epes brought that same kind of clarity of thought into sharp focus to benefit countless individual students, in the classroom and beyond. From 1983 to 2008, for example, he provided savvy counsel to each of Davidson's Rhodes and Marshall scholarship applicants.

Epes' career has not been all work and no play. He has acted, directed and served on the board of the Davidson Community Players, which was founded the year he returned to alma mater as a professor. He has coached College Bowl teams and even trekked to California in 1992 to compete on television's Jeopardy!

Through all of it, Epes has continued as a teacher of students, first, last and always. When he was named registrar in 2000, he made his priority clear: "I refuse in any way to say I'm no longer a teacher. I consider myself a teacher and a registrar, rather than a registrar who teaches."

Thus it is not surprising that the two legacies most dear to Hansford Epes are directly related to the formation of Davidson students themselves: the Honor Code and the Humanities Program.

From Epes' introductory Humanities lecture, 1994:

"Those most positive about the (value of) the Humanities program often have had the longest list of suggestions about how to change it; a good sign, I believe, because it shows students find Humes to be a useful piece of a larger educational dialogue. Just as Humanities attempts within itself to make connections among a number of fields, those who have taken it find that it gets them in the often useful habit of continuing to do so."

Epes is known for elegant pith. One of his many award citations noted, "A man of encyclopedic knowledge and unconventional insight, he is precisely and concisely impatient with verbosity."

He has brought the same clean balance of thought to his perennial remarks about the Honor Code, delivered to each incoming first-year class for many years.

"Ours is a community of trust," he tells them. "Trust means that we can have expectations about each other. But with matters of academic honor, as of all other kinds, our highest expectations should be of ourselves: to embody the values we admire, to make the Honor Code our own, and to be able to say -- in my case, over fifty years since I first signed the pledge that you will sign this evening -- that the Honor Code does far more than express an ideal. I can tell you, on my honor, that for longer than even I can remember it has served and enriched and enlightened the Davidson community. I trust you to cherish its benefits, to treasure its responsibilities, and to keep its light aglow."

Epes came to Davidson from Lynchburg, Va. He was a first-generation college student in a time, he notes, when that was not a rarity.

Alex Trebek and Hansford Epes
Renowned as a trivia expert and longtime coach of Davidson's College Bowl team, Epes appeared on an episode of "Jeopardy," and brought home an autographed picture of himself and host Alex Trebek.

There had been no Advanced Placement classes -- they didn't exist yet -- for this son of a department store executive and a homemaker, but he recalls having exercised his mind learning the secret pricing codes of the department store marking room during after-school jobs. At school, he played in the orchestra and got the best grades.

"This was not the path to popularity," he says. Still he forged ahead, the self-described "kid everybody loved to hate," long before TV's The Big Bang Theory made geek chic.

There was no SAT-centric "college search process" as it is known today. But there was a youth leader at Epes' church who had deep Davidson connections, Dr. Edgar Woods, brother to Dr. James Woods, the college physician. Mrs. Edgar Woods of Lynchburg particularly encouraged young Epes to apply to Davidson.

"Mrs. Woods was an extremely persuasive woman, so I did," he sums up.

Thus in the fall of 1957, Hansford Epes found himself at an unheard-of 200 miles from home, matriculating at Davidson.

"We got to choose which language and which science to take, but that was about it," he recalls. There were two semesters of Old Testament, two of New. Some 15-20 particularly promising freshmen got pulled out into a "Great Books" survey course that was a precursor to Humes. Epes was among them.

"I was good in math, too," he says. "I just flat liked math. Math was beautiful. It is not an accident that mathematicians use the word 'elegant' for proofs."

In fact, he still likes math, perhaps especially in academic context. A random brick-sidewalk crossing with a Humes colleague from the Mathematics Department in early spring soon led to a spirited discussion of shared Humes lecture material: "Hellenistic Science and Math," "From Jesus to Christ," and "From Cult to Church."

For his own major, Epes ultimately decided on German, after considering psychology, math and English among others. (He also met requirements for European history in summer school, thus circumventing the 16-semester-hour limit of the times.)

At UNC Chapel Hill's top-ranked doctoral program in German studies, Epes was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a Carnegie Fellowship, all of which helped him "avoid grading papers." In his third year, he received a letter from Davidson inviting him to return as a German instructor to fill a teaching position in the German Department. And though as a college senior he had not foreseen coming back to Davidson professionally, certainly not so soon, in hindsight Epes sees the decision to return as wholly natural and desirable.

"I don't know if it's in the air, or in the water. It's residual. There's something good here," he says.

An active, longtime member of Davidson's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Epes has won numerous awards at Davidson, including the Sears-Roebuck Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership; the Omicron Delta Kappa Award for Leadership; and the school's prized Thomas Jefferson Award, which "recognizes a faculty member who by personal influence, teaching, writing, and scholarship promotes the high ideals of Thomas Jefferson."

Epes credits his colleagues as well as his students with informing his long Davidson experience. Again, Humanities was, and is, often the crucible.

"The enormous advantage to me is what I've learned from my colleagues. Scores of colleagues," he says. "They shed light for me on whole eras that were but dim shadows. There is a cross-fertilization among faculty members that one simply can't ignore."

Happily, for Epes and for Davidson, he will continue his contributions to the life of the mind at Davidson College after his official retirement. He's already signed up for Humes in spring semester 2013.

In the meantime, at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 27, in the Lilly Family Gallery, friends, family, colleagues, students, and former students from across campus and far beyond will gather to honor and celebrate Epes' Davidson career.

Then finally, amid the registrar's springtime work of getting students pointed as squarely as possible toward the graduation stage, there is also the commencement ceremony itself that Epes, as registrar, coordinates.

One more day to walk out onto the campus and have it just feel right.