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Harvard's Archie Epps is dead at 66

Archie C. Epps III, who chronicled Malcolm X and participated in civil rights marches on Washington, then became an establishment figure at Harvard as one of the university's first black administrators, died Thursday of complications from surgery. He was 66.

A lover of music, afternoon tea, and all things English, Mr. Epps, who served as dean of students from 1971 to 1999, had been a fixture at Harvard, easily spotted as he strolled the quadrangles in a three-piece suit and characteristic silk bow tie.

"It is hard to imagine Harvard Yard without Archie Epps walking it," William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, told school officials yesterday. "He was an influential presence on campus for nearly 40 years. A much beloved teacher and dean, he was a friend of students, of faculty, and of Harvard. He will be missed."

Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, said that Mr. Epps "was a very elegant man in a difficult position. He was elegant in style and clothes. The difficulty was that he was the only black senior Harvard administrator for a long period of time, and felt pressure from all sides -- from the administration, from students, from everybody. He carried all of this off in very good spirits. He did a lot for the institution."

Born May 19, 1937, Mr. Epps grew up in Lake Charles, La., the son of a football player of some fame in the bayou country. He graduated from Talladega College in Alabama and first came to Harvard for a bachelor of theology degree from its divinity school. He also earned a certificate in educational management from the Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Education.

A scholar of Islam who marched on Washington in 1963 and brought Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin to speak at Harvard, Mr. Epps was a teaching assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, beginning in 1961. He was named assistant dean of Harvard College in 1964, when there were few black faculty members or administrators. He served as assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and resident music tutor in Leverett House.

Mr. Epps edited a book, "The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard" (Morrow, 1967) that was reissued with an expanded introduction by him in 1991. But for all his associations with radicalism, Mr. Epps settled quickly into the role of keeper of the peace at Harvard, and was regularly sent to the front lines of student unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Negotiations were not always successful, as evidenced by a photograph of Mr. Epps being escorted out of the student-occupied University Hall in 1969.

In subsequent turbulent times on campus, frequently concerning issues of race, Mr. Epps practiced a strategy of "tough love, with reason," said Jeremy Knowles, a former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "He had an extraordinary ability to be friendly, approachable, and supportive, while being quite firm, and completely principled. Deans and presidents above him wanted a quiet, scholarly environment. The students may have other ideas. It takes a very wise and able man to have the students feel they've been supported, and to achieve the peace administrations yearn for."

In 1992, Boston Globe society columnist John Robinson wrote that Mr. Epps used "a strategy that defused tensions without adopting the fashionable give-'em-everything-they-want palliatives to student demands, like separatist Third World centers, ethnically identified dormitories and academic regimes of dubious scholarly merit."

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Epps helped organize a series of conferences on economics that was funded by the government of Luxembourg. From those conferences, he coedited (with Armand Clesse, president of the Harvard-Luxembourg Association) a book called " `Present at the Creation': The Fortieth Anniversary of the Marshall Plan" (Harper and Row, 1990).

In 1992, Mr. Epps published Harvard's first handbook on race relations.

Several Harvard graduates commented yesterday on Mr. Epps's commitment to students. He always cared passionately about the undergraduates, they said. He held a holiday party at his house for those who couldn't return to their own homes; left a black-tie affair to bail a student photographer out of jail; and remained friends with some for decades after they graduated.

"There were so many students' lives that he not just passed in and out of, but really had an impact on," said Christina C. Blau, Harvard '88, who considered herself among them. "He loved that age in life when so much is before you, when so much of your life is possibility and opportunity and choice."

Even black students who scorned Mr. Epps publicly as being too much a part of the administration "came to Archie under cover of night," the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, minister of the Memorial Church and Mr. Epps's longtime friend, told the Globe in 1999. Gomes said these young people were "wondering, `How does this man cope in an environment that's killing me?' "

Blau said that for all the attention focused on Mr. Epps's race, it was never an issue for the man who gave a speech at her wedding and invited her to an annual poetry party every time the cherry tree in his yard sprouted fruit.

"I think Archie was somebody who really transcended race. I never really thought of him as being anything but Archie," she said. "He was always somebody who was extremely comfortable with who he was."

A longtime member of Christ Church, Cambridge, Mr. Epps, of Belmont, was also a verger at the Memorial Church. A fellowship in his name pays for a recently ordained seminarian to serve as chaplain to the undergraduate community from the church.

Mr. Epps was also a trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Belmont Hill School in Belmont, The Winsor School in Boston, and The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. He was an overseer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and served on the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct.

In 1995, Mr. Epps underwent double-bypass heart surgery and a few months later received a kidney transplant; the kidney was donated by his wife, Valerie, a professor at Suffolk Law School. Also, Mr. Epps had diabetes. Harvard officials did not disclose the nature of the surgery that preceded his death.

Reflecting on his tenure in a 1999 profile in the Globe, Mr. Epps said, "The question to be asked now is, what good did I do?' Because you either climb the ladder and pull it up after you, so no one else can follow. Or you put it down so others can climb up, too.

"Peter Gomes was once asked if I was being used by the Harvard administration. And Peter said, `Maybe it was a double game. Maybe Harvard was using Archie, and maybe Archie was using Harvard.' My response is, maybe I am Harvard in some sense. Maybe it was my game all along."

Mr. Epps leaves his wife; two sons, Josiah, Harvard class of '98 and Caleb, '03; and two brothers, Martin of Jackson, Miss., and Heibert George of Houston.

A memorial service, to be held at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, is being planned.

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