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Board Member Spotlights

Ralph Norman

Ralph NormanOne April afternoon in 1966, Liberal Arts Dean Alvin Nielsen, telephoned me to ask whether I would come back to UT to work on the formation of a new Religious Studies Department.

I was an East Tennessee native, born in Johnson City and raised during my teen years in Knoxville.   UT was my alma mater; I'd earned the B. A. there with majors in Philosophy and English before heading overseas on a Fulbright grant for a year's graduate study in theology at Tuebingen.  It was one of the more venerable universities in Germany, with a long and distinguished history in the fields I was most eager to pursue. 

Connie Shirley, my wife, had been a Child and Family Studies major at UT when we married in July 1955, and she interrupted her own studies for a while to share in that year abroad. When we returned to the States, more specifically to Yale, I completed my graduate work in philosophical theology, coming away after five years in New Haven with the B. D., the M. A., and the Ph.D.  Meanwhile Connie, never one to sit around idle, had been asked to teach in and then direct the Yale Divinity Nursery School, and in 1960 she had borne our first child, our daughter Emily Celeste.

The next five years found us in the tiny village of Oxford, Ohio, where I was privileged to serve in both the Philosophy and the Religion departments at Miami University, just the sort of assignment I'd always hoped to be given.  In 1964 we had a second child, our son Stephen Christopher. Life was unbelievably good. Who could ask for anything more?

What Dean Nielsen offered that spring of1966 was an opportunity to "come home" and build a brand new program that would be a small but important part of a school that was clearly on a roll and ready for greater things. How could I refuse?   

Within five years Religious Studies had a terrific start, with a first-rate team of six young scholar-teachers whose interdisciplinary interests and ambitions matched my own.  Mine, from my freshman college days on, had been broad-ranging, full of curiosity about everyone and everything written or proposed from Plato to Thomas Mann, from Augustine to A. N. Whitehead, from John Donne to Soren Kierkegaard and sundry poets and pundits in between, -- every one of them impossible to compartmentalize. This rather undisciplined catholicity led me, I suppose inevitably, to accept administrative duties when they arose. For a while I was Associate Dean in the College and subsequently served as Associate Vice Chancellor, later to be called "Vice Provost."  If you want a name or a slogan for what I imagined I was about in all those years, it would have to be humanism:  nihil humanun mini alienum est , “nothing that is human is foreign to me”.

Another quotation, which I've always liked, is the one we used in the motto for Soundings, the interdisciplinary journal I edited for some years that was housed at UT.  We said we aimed to challenge the fragmentation of modern intellectual life,'  and wanted to 'turn the deliverances of the several academic disciplines toward the sterner discipline of a common good in human affairs,' but  at he same time we warned against 'the disguised violence of forced coherence'  and urged authors and readers 'to respect Whitehead's famous advice:  'Seek simplicity, and distrust it.' "

When I retired in 2003, I could look back upon a number of deeply satisfying decades in which I had been allowed to explore the very things I enjoyed most.  I'd been party to one of the greatest conspiracies known to humankind.  All persons, Aristotle had said, desire to know.  And every person, he added, insofar as he or she is truly human, is a zo-on  politikon, a political animal, a member of some or other civil community. For me, that community has been the Academy.  So what better way to celebrate and try to maintain that membership than to conclude it by serving on the Board of Visitors for one's very own home department, and by watching that department as it continues to fulfill in so many fresh and ever surprising ways its original promise and mission?  The name for that, I believe, is pride.

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