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Zeph Stewart; taught lessons of classics, humanity at Harvard

ZEPH STEWART ZEPH STEWART
Email|Print| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 12, 2007

Just a few years after becoming a classics professor, Zeph Stewart sent a letter to Harvard's student newspaper in 1957 praising a colleague who would soon retire. It was not a mash note crafted to curry favor with the lords of the academic manor.

"I need not dwell on his years of service in this community, but prefer to speak of the good fortune of the University in having in its janitorial staff a person who has contributed so much to the Harvard education of so many young men," Mr. Stewart wrote in the Harvard Crimson of David Germaine, a custodian whose example "taught countless undergraduates the value of gentlemanly conduct and of directness and integrity for living a good life."

Hailing contributions by the least-noticed "was part of the fabric of his life - what he, in his little quiet way, paid attention to," said Mr. Stewart's daughter Sarah of Cambridge.

A longtime master of Lowell House, Mr. Stewart also had a deft touch with administration that helped right the finances of Harvard's Loeb Classical Library and the American Philological Association. He died of complications from pneumonia Dec. 1 in his Watertown home after a few years of illnesses and declining health. Mr. Stewart was 86.

"Zeph cared about every part of Harvard, and every part of classics in particular," said Richard Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin at the university. "He was brilliant in a very quiet way. He knew a great deal, but he wasn't ostentatious about his knowledge, and he had an aesthetic sensibility that it was wonderful to be touched by."

Jeffrey Henderson, former dean of arts and sciences at Boston University and now a professor of Greek, had been one of Mr. Stewart's students.

"He didn't always get credit for what he did. I don't think there's anyone in the field who doesn't owe something to Zeph Stewart, directly or indirectly," Henderson said. "He was a person of great dignity, but also openness and warmth. He was a friend you always respected and could come to with things. Sometimes Zeph was the only person I could come to with a question. Academics is a gossipy lot, but you could trust Zeph completely."

Born in Michigan, Mr. Stewart grew up in Cincinnati, where his father was mayor and also served on the state's Supreme Court. His older brother Potter became a US Supreme Court justice. Mr. Stewart followed his brother to Connecticut through prep school and college at the Hotchkiss School and Yale, but the family's finances suffered during the Depression and he graduated from each as a scholarship student.

His skill with languages led to Army intelligence assignments during and after World War II, first in Washington, D.C., then in London and Paris.

He began his graduate work at Harvard in 1947, becoming a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows. That allowed him to pursue his studies without formal requirements. By doing so he did not receive a doctorate and in 1953 became an assistant professor in the classics department, which he later served as chairman.

In 1963, he and his wife, Diana, moved into Lowell House, where Mr. Stewart became the third master, the administrative head of that residence community.

"He was a person who was very interested in other people," said his wife, who married Mr. Stewart nearly 48 years ago. "I think the main characteristics in the way he looked at other people was he looked at their good qualities first. That didn't mean he didn't see the warts, but it was the good qualities that mattered."

The dozen years when the Stewarts were surrogate parents to class after class of Harvard students brought many changes. In 1965, Mr. Stewart announced that Harvard's residence houses would extend until midnight the hours for gatherings after home football games, telling the Crimson that "the character of the student body has gradually changed and that students are less likely to become disorderly at after-game parties than they were a couple of decades ago."

The Stewarts also kept peace at Lowell during the tumult of Vietnam War protests and volunteered their house when Harvard began experimenting with coeducational accommodations in the 1970s.

"Both Diana and Zeph were not only welcoming and very supportive, but downright delighted that this change was taking place," said Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and current co-master of Lowell House.

Composure and leadership in turbulent times were traits Mr. Stewart brought to bear on all his activities, colleagues said.

"This was a calm, always gentle, but strong and righteous man," said Adam Blistein, executive director of the American Philological Association, which Mr. Stewart served as president and financial trustee. "This was a man who knew what was right and would stand up for it without beating you over the head with it."

Said Sarah Stewart: "He had that true humility where no one even notices that you're humble. My dad was an incredibly good man, by all standards of what that means. I just don't know that many people like that. It's really quite amazing to have been raised by him and love him."

As a scholar, Mr. Stewart took a keen interest in the work of Arthur Darby Nock, editing a collection of the classicist's essays. Mr. Stewart, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities, became professor emeritus in 1992.

Decades ago, he began vacationing in rural Wyoming. Mr. Stewart stayed in cabins with no electricity or running water near the tiny town of Cora, which his wife said had once posted a sign announcing a population of three. Environmentally conscious long before it was fashionable, Mr. Stewart liked to walk and read in the shadow of the state's western mountains.

"He sometimes said rather wistfully, 'It would be nice if Widener Library were dumped down in Wyoming,' " his wife said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Stewart leaves another daughter, Mary of Berkeley, Calif.; a son, Christopher of San Francisco; and two granddaughters.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. on March 7 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.

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