“Phi Beta Kappa, for nearly 250 years . . . has represented and advocated both the merit and the pleasure of liberal learning as its own reward, while honoring those who demonstrate success in that learning. It should be a proud claim of any member.”
By Christine Noah
After forty-eight years on the faculty of Davidson College—not to mention four as an undergraduate himself—Phi Beta Kappa member Hansford Epes retired at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year. His half a century of commitment to education has shaped the College as an institution, as well as the thousands of students who have had the privilege to share a dialogue with him.
Epes graduated in 1961 and joined the faculty in 1964, spreading his passion for learning as a professor of both German and humanities. He was appointed as the College’s registrar in 1999, but he was adamant about continuing his work in the classroom. His sharp wit and even sharper intellect always kept students (and colleagues) on their toes. When asked his favorite part of working at Davidson, Epes replied: “People. Well, most of them.”
He has seen the College grow and change over the decades of his career. Epes noted that “greater diversity of every sort,” from courses to campus to community, has been a major trend. But the biggest change, he claims, has been “the movement from being a very good regional college to a very good national one.” With Davidson ranked the #11 liberal arts school by U.S. News this year, Epes certainly has a point.
As a proud Phi Beta Kappa member, Epes also made sure to stay involved in Davidson’s ΦBK chapter, holding such positions as secretary, treasurer, and chapter president during his tenure. Discussing the importance of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Epes said: “Phi Beta Kappa, for nearly 250 years since its founding and nearly a century at Davidson, the third college in North Carolina to receive a charter, has represented and advocated both the merit and the pleasure of liberal learning as its own reward, while honoring those who demonstrate success in that learning. It should be a proud claim of any member.”
Looking back on his years at Davidson and as a Phi Beta Kappa member, Epes cherishes the many rich experiences he has had and the people he has met. When asked to choose a favorite memory from his career, he wisely observed: “Snapshots inherently lie. It’s impossible to isolate one. That’s kind of like asking someone about his or her favorite cubic inch of water in a river flowing by.” For Epes, every class, every conference, and every conversation has been integral in shaping the bigger picture.
With so much experience in academia under his belt, he was asked to share any advice he might have for aspiring professors. “During a long career, you’ll see the profession change, and none of us can predict how. It’s important to be flexible but also to have basic values that can manifest themselves in different ways. For those who want to be professors, I’d hope those values would include a love of teaching and of learning—and a commitment to the importance of the liberal arts and sciences as ends in themselves, along with principled dedication to freedom of inquiry. I have a nagging feeling that the profession of college teaching is likely to change more in the next forty years than in the last forty, if only in response to social and economic pressures that seem unlikely to go away, including a more varied range of student expectations. But that should be exciting, not intimidating.
And the magical key to being a successful college professor? “If there is one, it might be remembering what it was like to be a young learner—and always being an older one.”
Christine Noah is a senior at Davidson College majoring in English. Davidson is home to the Gamma of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.