In Memoriam: Dick Beards (1934-2013)
By Steve Newman, Editor
To the regret of all who knew him, Dick Beards, an associate professor in the Department of English in his 49th year of service at Temple, passed away over Winter Break. Adding to our sadness, the disease that took him worked very swiftly; we had no idea that he was ill and thus didn’t have time to say goodbye or prepare for losing him. The obituary that ran in his local newspaper reveals much about what made Dick special, his blending of scholarly pursuit, care for teaching, and a vital life outside of Temple that included his running an antiquarian bookstore. Our sense of the man was heightened by the memorial gathering put together by Prof. Joyce Joyce, the Chair of English. There, we heard from faculty of all ranks, graduate students, and undergraduates, from those who had known him for decades to those whom he had taught only recently but who had been deeply affected by his generosity. They spoke of his willingness to take risks, such as giving a feminist scholar a graduate class when he was director of the Master of Liberal Arts program at a time when feminism was not to be found—by design—in the graduate offerings of the English Department. They spoke of his extraordinary kindness toward his students, such as making his collection of Native American artifacts available to a Native American student who had never had the chance to touch the expertly-woven baskets of her own people. They testified to his wide-ranging curiosity, always eager to talk with a colleague in the hall about what he or she was working on or teaching.
I had the honor to be among those who spoke, and here’s what I said:
It’s a bit daunting to speak about the passing of somebody who started at Temple six years before I was born. But while the remarkable length of Dick’s tenure should be remembered, what struck me when I joined the department in the Fall of 2001 was that the nearly four decades he had already served seemed not to have diminished his enthusiasm for Temple one whit. He was on the hiring committee that brought me here, and he told me during our first conversation after I was hired that what he was looking for were future colleagues who could teach “our students.” He brought the same focus to a hiring committee I was on a few years later; yes, he was interested in their research; he read the entirety of the files; but would they bring the best out of our undergraduates?
And that’s what strikes me about all of the conversations we had over the next 13 years, most of them in the halls of Anderson as we were going to or from class. We’d talk about how we approached, say, The Rape of the Lock or Hard Times, and I always benefited from his tips. But Dick was most eager to talk about how a particular student did or did not get the text. He was not sentimental about some of our students’ lack of preparation and their occasional lack of effort. But he was much more interested in figuring out how best to work with them than in complaining about them. And while he was willing to teach pretty much anything assigned to him, like Children’s Literature and Folklore, which always filled—as a former Director of Undergraduate Studies, I can’t stress enough how welcome that attitude is—he was also eager to try new things. I recall how excited he was to teach a senior seminar that had his students plunge into diaries by figures ranging from a Quaker who fought in the Civil War, to an Irish immigrant telling his story to a prominent Chicago businessman. And I remember speaking to one of his students who was entranced by the diary he was looking at, the sort of deep engagement with texts that is at heart of what we do, shaping minds and even changing lives on occasion. As you may know, he was at work on editing the diary of Lavinia Townsend, a Quaker abolitionist; it saddens me to think that he seems not to have had the chance to complete that project.
His course on diaries also speaks to another very valuable part of Dick’s character. I assume that he acquired those diaries in his role as an antiquarian bookseller. This is to say that he had a very rich life outside of Temple. I recall a party that he and his wife Ginny graciously hosted at his lovely home out in Chester County; it gave me glimpse of how important it is to balance work—and academic work can unbalance even the best of us—with the rest of one’s life.
I am grateful to have had such a wise, good-humored, gentle man and gentleman as a colleague and friend, even though a period was put to his life much sooner than any of us would have liked. Dick Beards was someone who stayed true to this dictum from The Water Babies, a text he knew well and edited for Penguin: “Do as you would be done by.” He did, and I will miss him. •