Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp

Professor Of Religious Studies At Mcdaniel College Was An Ordained Minister And A Civil Rights Activist

August 04, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp, a social activist and influential professor of religious studies at what is now McDaniel College who had inspired generations of students to devote their lives to civil rights, peace and social justice, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at his Westminster home. He was 79.

"Ira will be deeply missed and long remembered by everyone in our college family," McDaniel President Joan Develin Coley said Monday in a statement.

"Ira was a gifted and devoted teacher, a true humanitarian who gave unselfishly of himself to make this world a better place for all," Dr. Coley said. "His legacy of peace and love and justice will surely live on."

Dr. Zepp, the son of tenant farmers, was born and raised in Madonna. After graduating from Bel Air High School, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1952 from what was then Western Maryland College.

He was a magna cum laude graduate of Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J., and earned his doctorate in 1971 from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park.

An ordained Methodist minister, Dr. Zepp pastored churches in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland before joining the McDaniel faculty in 1963 as dean of the chapel.

Dr. Zepp conducted classes on such taboo subjects at the time as human sexuality, death and racism. His serious scholarship on a wide range of subjects from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X and the culture and religion of Islam earned him packed classrooms, a devoted following and numerous plaudits.

It was a tenet of Dr. Zepp's that questions unite while answers divide and that the purpose of becoming educated and acquiring knowledge is for it to be used for the common good of all mankind.

One of Dr. Zepp's favorite sayings was: "To know and not to act is not to know."

Dr. Zepp had served on the committee that helped desegregate many restaurants in Westminster, and his civil rights work sometimes took him off campus.

In 1965, he participated in the historic march on Selma, Ala., with Dr. King and other civil rights demonstrators.

However, not everyone in Dr. Zepp's Westminster neighborhood at the time shared his and his wife's civil rights advocacy.

"By virtue of taking stands you will have some people who are on the other side. I've made enemies, but I never think of them as enemies," he said in an interview with The Hill, the McDaniel alumni magazine. "I will love the hell out of them, or better yet, heaven into them."

"Civil rights and social justice were his passions, and he was one of the great old-line warriors who fought for the oppressed," said the Rev. Larry Brumfield, pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Westminster, a longtime friend and fellow activist.

"Ira always talked the talk and walked the walk. He was a man of courage and compassion," he said. "He was also a brilliant public speaker and could move people with the power of his oratory."

Walt Michael, a folk singer who graduated from McDaniel in 1968, described Dr. Zepp as a "great scholar who combined a great heart with a great intellect. He was a man for the ages."

"He came from tenant farmer parents and from that perspective saw the world. He never forgot the poor and the disadvantaged. His activism was rooted in reality and love," he said.

He and his longtime friend and former teacher were co-founders in 1994 of Common Ground on the Hill, a program in residence at McDaniel that promotes cultural and ethnic diversity through music, art and philosophy. Mr. Michael is the director.

"He could have gone anywhere to teach, but he chose to stay in Westminster. He simply nurtured thousands of people," Mr. Michael said, recalling his friend's admonition to "Bloom where you're planted."

Dr. Zepp was the author of more than a dozen books, including three on Dr. King.

Even though he retired from McDaniel in 1994, Dr. Zepp continued teaching at Carroll Community College until 2008.

In his most recent book, "Pedagogy of the Heart," Dr. Zepp wrote that teaching had more to do with art than science.

"A teacher is someone who is willing and humble enough to drink from the instructional wells of those who have preceded us and continue to be nourished by them: the Hindu sages, the prophets' call for justice, the discipline of the shamans, the wisdom teachers of all traditions, the gifts and graces of the saints, plus every teacher we've ever had," he wrote.

"A teacher is someone who is devoted to students and is willing to endure the vertigo of vulnerability which inevitably accompanies the intimacy of human relationships and unanswered questions," Dr. Zepp wrote. "This is the pedagogy of the heart."

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 29 at Baker Memorial Chapel on the McDaniel College campus.

Surviving are his wife of 57 years, the former Mary Elizabeth Dodd; two sons, Alan P. Zepp of Westminster and Paul H. Zepp of Van Nuys, Calif.; two daughters, Karen P. Zepp of Columbia and Jody K. Zepp of Owings Mills; two brothers, Murray Zepp of Rising Sun and Dale Zepp of Montana; a sister, Patricia Mikkonan of Bel Air; and a granddaughter.

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