The friends and family of longtime Classics professor Zeph Stewart gathered Friday to pay their respects to the former Lowell House Master, filling Memorial Church with Harvard alumni, Classics Department affiliates, and Lowell notables.
Stewart, who passed away on December 1 at the age of 86, was praised for his 12 years of service as a house master, his five-year term as chair of the Classics Department, and his central role in reviving Harvard University Press’s Classical Library, which publishes English translations of Greek and Latin texts.
But Stewart’s record of humility and caring for those who ranked lower than him—what his daughter, Sarah B. Stewart, called “a deep love, respect, and interest in other creatures”—was most noted.
Classics professor Richard F. Thomas recalled meeting Stewart at a New York job interview in 1976, three weeks before the death of his own father, who was the same age as Stewart.
“If I seem to make an analogy, that is what I am doing, even if Zeph would have been embarrassed to hear it,” Thomas said, referring to the man who “taught that teaching intermediate Latin was as important as teaching a graduate seminar” and would often visit Latin classes at area schools.
Current Lowell House Master and religion scholar Diana L. Eck recalled a bolder side of Stewart that led him to become a key supporter in the “daring move” towards adopting religion as an undergraduate concentration in 1974. This “radical spirit,” Eck said, was further displayed as Stewart took a leading role in urging the relaxation of the parietal rules that used to restrict private meetings between male and female students.
According to his children, Stewart, who in 1957 wrote a letter to The Crimson celebrating the “gentlemanly conduct” and “integrity” of a member of the janitorial staff, had a habit of seeing the heroic side of people who lived their lives far from public view. Stewart, his daughter said, once sent his three children a reminder of some of the great role models they had known: “a cook, a housekeeper, and a cowboy we knew well somewhere in Wyoming.”
Friday’s speakers left no doubt about his place in the history of the University that he first encountered as a graduate student in 1947.
“When we think of the great and the shining lights of this University and turn to the dead, the name that leads all others is that of our friend, Zeph Stewart,” said Rev. Peter J. Gomes.
Despite the gravity of the occasion, the service did not lack humor in honor of Stewart who on one occasion brought down a pet boa constrictor to remove loiterers from the dining hall, according to Sarah Stewart.
“For want of a better word, [Zeph] also had his impish side,” Thomas said at one point, before recalling Stewart’s wry enjoyment of the struggles and awkwardness that occurred when Thomas found himself teaching his own wife—then a graduate student—in an advanced Latin course.
Ralph J. Hexter ’74, the president of Hampshire College, who is, by his own account, one of the first few openly gay college presidents in the country, said after the memorial ceremony that the support he received as a Lowell House resident from Stewart and his wife put him “in good stead” for his later achievements.
Gomes had his own thoughts to offer on what his friend might have felt about the proceedings.
“I think he would have been mildly intrigued at the encomia his colleagues were presenting,” Gomes said. “He was shrewd, as I said—he knew how to separate the wheat form the chaff.”