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August 5, 2009

R.I.P. Dr. Ira Zepp

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last Saturday word spread quickly throughout the greater Carroll County community that Rev. Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp, Jr., professor emeritus of the Religious Studies department at McDaniel College, had died peacefully at his home. He was 79 years old.


Dr. Zepp was many different things for many people. In addition to his many professional accomplishments, if you were fortunate enough to have crossed his path, he was a trusted friend and advisor, a college professor, a stalwart foot soldier in the civil rights movement, an author of 12 books, and certainly the conscience and soul of McDaniel College and Westminster.


In a memorial tribute by McDaniel College, President Dr. Joan Develin Coley recalled that Dr. Zepp “joined the faculty in 1963, first as Dean of the Chapel, then as full-time professor of Religious Studies, and continued to teach full time until his retirement in 1994.”


Dr. Zepp graduated from McDaniel College, then Western Maryland College, in 1952. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Drew Theological Seminary, after which he served a number of churches in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey before joining the faculty at McDaniel. He earned a doctorate in 1971 from St. Mary’s Seminary and the University in Baltimore.


A colleague of mine, Dr. Charles Collyer, remarked in a recent conversation that he first met Dr. Zepp about 12 years ago. Dr. Collyer said that Dr. Zepp “participated in, and freed others to participate in, the American civil rights movement.”


Dr. Coley’s tribute noted that Dr. Zepp “participated in non-violent activism and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”


Dr. Collyer reiterated that Dr. Zepp “was one of the members of the clergy who went to Selma, Alabama, in 1965… These efforts resulted in the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 which made barriers to voter registration and voting illegal and Dr. Zepp was a part of that.”


Dr Zepp truly touched many lives, including mine. I first met him at the Westminster United Methodist Church in the mid 1960s. Even at a young age, it was easy to understand that to be in his presence was to be in the midst of greatness.


Dr. Zepp was a profound man of enormous charisma, wisdom, and compassion. He was one of the kindest people I have ever encountered.


The 1960s were a time of great changes for race relations in Westminster and McDaniel College – and it was into this environment that Dr. Zepp serendipitously entered the picture.


Dr. Pam Zappardino, who along with Dr. Collyer, were inspired and encouraged by Dr. Zepp to be co-founders of the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, remembers that she “was a student at McDaniel (then Western Maryland) College in the late sixties, when change was all around us. Ira freed us as students to stand up for what we believed and to stand strong in the face of criticism.”


I was keenly aware of the developments of the 1960s for several reasons which were built on the foundation of growing up in my parents’ enlightened household.


As a child growing up in Westminster, I attended Westminster United Methodist Church, which up until approximately 1974, was associated with Western Maryland College. In my childhood photograph album, I have a picture of an African-American friend I made at church camp in 1967 at Western Maryland – two years before the first African-American graduated from the school.


Although, Westminster and McDaniel College are quick to claim Dr. Zepp, he was the first true citizen of the world I ever met.


One of my prized possessions is a copy of “Sacred Spaces of Westminster,” that he wrote in 1981. A biographical note from the book says that Dr. Zepp “also studied at the University of Edinburgh, Gottingen, Harvard, and at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as well as in India and Eastern Europe.”


And yet, Dr. Zepp was extraordinarily accessible, humble and self-effacing, with a disarming sense of dry wit and humor.


In an e-mail exchange in 2001, his response to a set of challenges was “if your socks don't match, stand in a flower garden. Ira”


Our paths crossed frequently over the years. He had the uncanny ability to be available, more often than not, at critical junctures in my life. I recall our paths crossing at one particularly chaotic moment in which he was quick to point out that there was a meaning and purpose for the despair and turmoil.


It was after I had a few really unpleasant experiences working in the civil rights arena in North Carolina in 1971 – 1973 that I sought his advice on several occasions. I was bitter and angry. It was then that I first heard him suggest to me: “You might want to change excitement for wisdom.”


His concept of change is one of the many life lessons he taught me. Over Dr. Zepp’s long and storied career, change was always the core of his being and essence. He always kept it at the ready.


Dr. Zepp leaves a legacy which it is our responsibility to continue to build upon. Fortunately, he laid a substantial foundation upon which we can work.


Dr. Zappardino noted that Dr. Zepp “was a critical partner with Walt Michael in the founding of Common Ground on the Hill, an organization in which the traditional music and art of many cultures brings people together in community.


She said: “Ira taught me that questions are much more important than answers. ‘Questions Unite. Answers Divide,’ he always said."


I could not agree more with Dr. Zappardino’s observation: “Ira was an optimist. In a very real way, I am who I am because I knew Ira...and we often laughed about some of the trouble that's gotten me into. I expect I'll get into more trouble as I go along. And that Ira will still be cheering me on.”


Rest in Peace, Ira G. Zepp, Jr.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at kevindayhoff@


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