Sweet Briar College is mourning the loss of a beloved community member, Edward Lee Piepho, who died Dec. 18, 2013, at his home. He was 71.
Piepho joined the English department at Sweet Briar in 1969 and held the title of Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of English when he retired from active teaching in 2007. He retained the title as a research professor in the years since.
Piepho was passionate about his subject and the humanities in general, loved teaching, and was a recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award, given by the senior class, in 1991 and again in 2000. His teaching centered on Shakespeare, early modern culture and film.
He was a consummate intellectual and an internationally recognized scholar in his specialty. Unusual for a scholar of English literature, his research broadly addressed the diffusion of Italian Renaissance humanism in Great Britain and continental Europe, particularly in neo-Latin literature — European works written in Latin in the early modern period. He published two books and numerous articles in this area, and continued to publish articles and present papers at major international conferences in his retirement.
He spent many happy hours at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. and at major research libraries abroad, including the Bodleian at Oxford. Throughout his life, Piepho was a collector of rare books, adept at finding treasures overlooked by most. He has donated the collection to the Folger.
John Gregory Brown, Sweet Briar’s Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English, believes Piepho was beloved by students and colleagues because he so freely shared his “ardent belief in the beauty and grace of literature and in its deep and abiding consolations.”
“Lee was a man of great erudition but an even greater — far greater — generosity of spirit,” Brown says.
His deep convictions served his friend well through an extended illness, Brown says of Piepho, who struggled for four years with leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer.
“Lee faced [his illness] with great dignity and humility. He never lost his mischievous sense of humor, his wit, his kindness. He loved Sweet Briar College, and Sweet Briar — its students, faculty and staff — loved him back. I will miss him terribly. We will all miss him terribly.”
Lynn Laufenberg, an associate professor of history and a fellow Renaissance scholar, knows his generosity well. She counts Piepho and his wife, professor of chemistry Sue Piepho, among her most cherished friends.
“Lee was a mentor to me and other younger faculty, introducing us to senior scholars, suggesting venues to present our research, and keeping up a running intellectual conversation about the state of learning in our field,” Laufenberg says.
She notes that he was instrumental in organizing and launching the College’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies program in 2011, well after he had retired. He even presented the program’s first lecture. Naturally, the subject was rare book collecting.
“He brought part of his personal collection as show-and-tell,” Laufenberg recalls. “The library’s Browsing Room was mobbed — and not just standing room-only mobbed. Students and colleagues spilled out into the hall and far back into the stacks. I’ve never seen that kind of response for a talk on such a seemingly arcane topic. But that attests to the enduring respect and affection he has commanded during his long career.”
During those years, he left an impression on many students. Kathy Upchurch Takvorian ’72 says those who studied with him were lucky.
“Dr. Piepho was the perfect combination of rigorous teacher, academic champion and friend,” Takvorian says. “He had an uncanny ability to speak knowledgeably about everything from medieval English literature to all aspects of popular culture, including music, film and anything else ‘au courant’ or ‘avant-garde.’
“He defined the word ‘chuckle’ and redefined ‘professor.’ His students benefitted from a magnetic, inspiring, memorable and unique classroom experience, along with mentoring that lasted throughout a college career and beyond.”
Cheryl Mares, who succeeded Piepho as the Shallenberger Brown Professor, says his range as a scholar and a human being made him a compelling figure.
“Lee believed deeply in the value of a traditional liberal arts education, but also kept abreast of the latest developments in contemporary popular culture, especially film and music. He somehow managed to be both dignified and joyous,” she says. “His lively, inquiring mind, his essential nobility, and his generous spirit impressed all who knew him.”
Piepho was born on Jan. 10, 1942, in Detroit and grew up in Wilmette, Ill. He was a graduate of New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill., and graduated with an A.B. in English from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He received a Master of Arts in English from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. His specialty was Renaissance English literature.
Susan Brand Piepho, his wife of nearly 50 years, his sister-in-law, Jane Brand Jacobs of New York City, and his nephew, Alexander Byron Jacobs of Chicago, survive him.
Susan and Lee met on a boat going to Europe the summer after their sophomore year in college and were married in 1964, a week after they graduated. Together they have enjoyed being professors at Sweet Briar College, traveling all over the world, playing tennis and golf, and scuba diving.
Piepho lived fully despite his illness, guest lecturing as recently as October at the College and playing golf just a few weeks ago.
He was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the Alan B. Pearson Regional Cancer Center in Lynchburg. The Piephos were grateful for their excellent care, as well as that of Centra Hospice.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Sweet Briar College’s Mary Helen Cochran Library for book acquisitions or to the Humane Society of Amherst County.
A service, followed by a reception, will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 26, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Clifford. A memorial service will be held at Sweet Briar College at a later date.
Read more about Lee and Susan Piepho: Love of liberal arts drives professors’ donation.