The following is a talk I gave at the Sewanee Emeritus Association Annual Banquet in honor of Doug Seiters on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at the old Sewanee Inn.
When Laurence Alvarez contacted me a few months ago asking me to deliver a
resolution in praise of J. Douglas Seiters, I was delighted, thinking to
myself, Well, this will be an easy way to get a free dinner. After all,
who is there in Sewanee who couldn’t deliver an encomium for Doug? Anyone
has worked with him will offer unsolicited praise form him. Anybody in
this room would do a creditable job, and one could easily walk down
University Avenue button-holing strangers in the street, all of whom would
attest that Doug is the very essence of what is best in our school and
community. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that the New York Times
featured a note in the Educational Supplement about the Sewanee tradition
of gown-wearing, and there on the World Wide Web for everyone to see was a
room full of students in a seminar studying Catullus, with Doug at the
head of the table. You look at that and think, What alma mater can boast
of a son who looks more like her?
Doug’s record of service to the University can hardly be overstated, and
one wonders whether there is anybody in Sewanee’s history to match it.
Were I simply to list the names of the committees, programs, departments,
ad hoc advisory groups, strategic planning sessions, and the like, which
Doug has chaired or served on, we could be here well into the morning, so
I will avoid doing that. To put it more simply, let us note that he has
routinely taken on and succeeded at the most challenging jobs at the
University of the South. Only a few years after his graduation from
Sewane (a period of time in which he taught at the Baylor School and
earned an MA at Florida State), Doug returned to the university to work in
the Admissions Office and teach in the Classical Languages Department.
From there, after finishing his doctorate at FSU, he was promoted to the
challenging position of Dean of Men, an office he held from 1975 to 1986.
It is interesting to see that to many of the local police he is still
known as “Dean Seiters” in recognition of his long service in that office.
(For his efforts in reforming various campus rogues during that time, we
all owe him a debt of gratitude, as I believe both the University’s
current Director of Development and its present Chaplain can uniquely
In more recent times, urgent circumstances have brought Doug back into the
Administration. Like Cincinnatus called from his plough to fight the
Aequians in 458 B.C., Doug was sought out by the University for its
highest offices. And so he acted as Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor
(from 1996 to 2000), as interim Provost (in 2001), and as interim Dean of
the College (in 2003-2004). During this latter stint as Dean, in fact,
Doug served not simply as the college’s chief academic officer with all
the duties pertaining to the job, but had also to find time to mentor a
fledgling junior colleague as the interim Chair of Classical Languages.
If the department did not come tumbling down like a house of cards during
that year, I know who is to thank.
I have to tell you, I recall the moment in the Easter term of 2003 very
well when Doug called me into his office. A few weeks earlier, Bill
Bonds–our brilliant, witty, and occasionally prickly colleague–had died,
and then only a short time later, Dean Tom Kazee had resigned to take a
job at Furman. Doug called me into his office, as I said, to tell me what
I already knew he was going to say, that the VC had asked him to serve as
“Are you ready to do it?” I asked.
“Well, that depends, “ he replied. “Are you ready to be the chair of
Classical Languages?” That part of the equation hadn’t occurred to me,
and I gave it a moment’s thought.
“I think so,” I said. He shook my hand in congratulations, and then
added, “You know, the Dean is very concerned about that open
position you haven’t filled in your department yet.”
All in all, these various tasks–provost, dean of men, dean of the
college–were ones that called not simply for competence but, even more
critically, for that quality which St. Benedict reminds us is most
important in a leader of a tight-knit community, discretion. It speaks
volumes that it was to Doug Seiters that Sewanee turned again and again
during such times when a steady hand and discreet tongue were needed. And
it speaks further volumes still that, of all the many posts he has held
over the years here, Doug speaks with greatest pride of his work directing
Sewanee’s Summer Scholars program, the forerunner of the present Bridge
Program, which brought disadvantaged inner-city high school students to
Sewanee as preparation for college-level work. That he continued to teach
full time during the entirety of the program’s five year run is surprising
only if we are not already familiar with his tremendous work ethic.
We may be certain that neither the high school students in the program nor
the students enrolled in his college classes were given anything but
Doug’s full consideration. His current students appreciate his
attentiveness to them, too, as we can easily deduce from a comment I have
read on the rear window of a comped senior’s car not so long ago, which
stated “We lift our lighters for Dr. Seiters.” On one of his more recent
evaluations I recall seeing a comment written in the inimitable dialect of
the undergraduate, which read simply, “Doug Rules!” And who can disagree?
As a colleague, as a teacher, as a scholar, as a community member, as a
friend, in all these ways and others, we are very much in the debt of this
most serviceable gentleman. And yet, like Cincinnatus, who when the war
was won took off his toga to return to his plough and fields, Doug is
about to take leave of us. We are grateful to him, of course, for all his
many kindnesses, and we are sad, too, though he has taught us by his own
example better than to mope.
Yet, for all our selfishness in not wanting him to go, we would not
begrudge him his time with Ann, who will herself leave Sewanee Elementary
School behind at the end of next month. I do not know who the female
equivalent of Cincinnatus is, but I suspect she would look a lot like Ann.
What a hole it will leave at the Domain’s other fine educational
institution when she goes. I will admit that I cannot help but wonder who
will sing “Happy Birthday, Dear Friends” to future generations of SES
students at Friday Assembly? Our community has been fortunate indeed to
have had two such splendid educators in its midst, and if they have been
an inspiration to us in the past on the way to conduct one’s self properly
and profitably in our community, so we will look to them in the future for
the model of a suitable retirement, whether they are jetting off to visit
grandchildren, enjoying their summers on the Long Island Sound, or
lounging side by side, hand-in-hand, on their back-porch overlooking Tim’s
Ford Lake. And I will think of them often as Ovid imagines a pair of
famous lovers in Book Eleven of the Metamorphoses:
Hic modo coniunctis spatiantur passibus ambo,
nunc praecedentem sequitur, nunc praevius anteit
Eurydicenque suam iam tuto respicit Orpheus.
Here they walk together with equal strides,
Now he follows her as she goes ahead, now he precedes her on their way
and Orpheus looks safely back upon his Eurydice.
Many thanks to all of you for this opportunity to speak with you, and many
thanks, Doug and Anne, for all you have done for me, my family, and for
A great post about one of my favorite professors! Great pic also 🙂
I thought you might like it, Chris.