The Department mourns the passing of our dear friend and colleague Kenneth J. Reckford, Kenan Professor of Classics Emeritus, at the age of 88. Kenneth taught at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1960-2003 and left an indelible mark on the Department and on countless students he taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and made significant scholarly contributions on both Greek and Latin authors the influence of which is still felt today. When Kenneth was approaching retirement, his long-time colleague Philip Stadter (who himself passed away earlier this year) wrote a brilliant and loving appreciation of Kenneth for Tabulae, the Department newsletter, and our remarks on this page will not try to compete with Philip’s article. We also have a full scholarly biography of Kenneth on this site, and will not go over all of those details here. The Classics Department at Florida State University, near where Kenneth and Charlotte have been living in recent years, and where Kenneth served as Langford Eminent Scholar in 2009, also have offered a remembrance of him.
Kenneth received his AB from Harvard in 1954 and his PhD in Classical Philology only three years later, in 1957; he would often speak fondly of the influence of Professor “RAB” (Robert A.) Brooks, and would later write a forward to a reprint of Brooks’ Harvard dissertation. Kenneth’s years at Harvard overlapped with those of many other distinguished Classicists, many of them life-long friends. Kenneth’s scholarly work, especially on Euripides, Aristophanes, Horace, and Persius, but also Homer, Menander, Vergil, and such moderns as Samuel Johnson, T.S. Eliot, L. Frank Baum, Tolkien, and Tom Stoppard, will long remain influential. A 1962 article on the then-neglected Roman satirist Persius was reprinted in 2009 as the first chapter of the Oxford Readings in Persius and Juvenal; in reviewing Kenneth’s 2009 book Recognizing Persius, John Henderson of Cambridge said “The 1962 essay “Studies in Persius” has been a big landmark for me …, and so it will be for Latinists to come.” Kenneth’s 1999 article on Horace Satire 1.5, the Trip to Brundisium, was on the syllabus for a UNC graduate seminar this semester. In Kenneth’s 1969 book Horace, one colleague will never forget how Kenneth, parodying grammarians’ fondness for over-labelling the case-uses in Latin, described one Horatian noun as being in the “dative of the patient lover into whose hands all things will be delivered.” Professor Stadter aptly describes how the role of tragedy and comedy in Kenneth’s scholarship and teaching reflects both his commitment to laughter and humor and his empathy for human suffering and grief: “His students and colleagues have found that the classical authors are not a field of study for Kenneth, but a fountain of life flowing with the sorrow, the compassion, the striving, and the achievement of the human condition.”
Kenneth was a helpful, if unconventional, colleague. It was well known, among graduate students and younger faculty, that Kenneth’s office was a wreck. Tables and desks were piled high with books and papers; books on shelves were in no visible order, and such furniture as there was seemed to have been gathered and arranged quite at random. This suited Kenneth, and it reflected his busy, creative mind. His reading of Aristophanes, Euripides, Horace, and Persius led him to other authors: Dante, Tolkien, and, less predictably, John Bunyan, T. S. Eliot, Tom Stoppard, and L. Frank Baum. Reading led to performing, and in the years from 1972 to 1991, Kenneth led students and colleagues in four fully-staged productions of Plautine plays in Latin, Bacchylides’ Theseus dithyrambs in Greek, and various informal, but carefully rehearsed, in-class dramatizations of ancient literature.
Kenneth’s humanity often came to the fore. A younger colleague reports the following. “One afternoon, when I was newly a father, I had a chat with Kenneth, who had four children at the time. How, I asked him, had he balanced fatherhood and a busy academic career? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’d rather change a diaper than write a footnote any day.’” A former student remembers that “…when I was a first-year graduate student, although I didn’t have a course with Kenneth and really didn’t know him, he came up to me in the hall one day and said, ‘I heard that you had been sick. Are you better?’ I had had the flu or something routine like that. I thought that it was very kind of him.”
It is fitting that Philip Stadter’s tribute to Kenneth appeared in the department newsletter Tabulae, because Kenneth played a crucial role in the origin and character of the newsletter. In the late 1980s, Ken Sams as chair decided we should have a departmental newsletter, to be sent annually to friends of the department and former students. He asked Kenneth to design the newsletter and work as editor. Ken Sams had in mind, of course, fund-raising, but Kenneth’s conception, one that he felt would convey the nature of the department, was not limited to material suitable for that purpose. For each issue, Kenneth himself wrote an introductory essay on the state of things, ranging from our department to the world; the importance of classical studies to human life was ever on his mind. There was in each issue an appreciation of one of our senior faculty members, and there was a section, “Variae Viae Reportant,” of news from former students, both graduate and undergraduate. Finally, there were short notes about special projects in or connected to the department. The whole was, and still is, called Tabulae.
Colleagues and former students remember Kenneth as a great and popular teacher. The “two Tanner awards” mentioned by Philip Stadter are distinguished UNC awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Students never knew what to expect in Kenneth’s courses. Lecturing on the travels of Odysseus or Aeneas, and the troubles they had, he would come down from the low stage in our large lecture hall and wander up and down the aisles, into dead-end corners, with a look that suggested confusion and despair. One day, in a much smaller class, he explained why he was late for class: “I was coming through the arboretum, and I saw a pair of squirrels copulating. I stopped to watch. It took much longer than I expected.” Kenneth explained to a colleague that his walk from the house on Franklin St. (with his distinctive bookbag over one shoulder) always included a pass though the Coker Arboretum on the Northeast edge of campus, because he wanted each day to include a taste of the natural beauty there.
We probably know only a fraction of Kenneth’s (and Charlotte’s) philanthropic activities. For Classics at UNC, Kenneth established the Reckford Graduate Student Fellowship Fund in 2006 in order to provide tuition and support to an outstanding Classics graduate student for five years; the fund helps the Department recruit outstanding graduate students who might otherwise accept offers from other programs. Kenneth liked to help our graduate students, and for many years he made anonymous gifts to the department to fund summer travel abroad for one or more students. Kenneth and his family also established at UNC the Mary Stevens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies, honoring Kenneth’s late first wife, who died in 1987; the 27th lecture was given in 2021. At the University of Delaware, where Kenneth’s second wife Charlotte Orth, who survives him, was an English and History major, Kenneth established in 2009 the Kenneth J. Reckford and Charlotte Orth Shakespeare Fund of the Department of English, to allow the English Department to hold large events in honor of Shakespeare. The establishment of the fund was described in stories announcing it as a gift from Kenneth to Charlotte.
When news of Kenneth’s passing appeared on Facebook, tributes and remembrances poured in, which we hear compile anonymously:
- I will always remember Dr. Reckford, every day for the rest of my life.
- He was a very caring person.
- I saw the Rudens (in Latin) directed by him. It was marvelous.
- Reckford is the finest instructor I ever met, and he profoundly affected my life and, years later, the life of my son with his beautiful appreciation for the classics. Both my son and I have shared with many people our fondness and admiration for Dr. Reckford, and both of us aspire to emulate him in our own teaching careers. He’s rare!
- Oh no, he was a lovely man. I was just telling someone, in glowing terms, about how he taught a class I was a TA for, “Hobbits and Heroes.”
- I didn’t have much contact with Professor Reckford while I was at Chapel Hill. But I do remember, after the 1980 APA Convention during which I felt obliged to reassess my potential as a scholar, Professor Reckford reassured me that he felt I had potential as a classical scholar. At that time, his reassurance was tremendously helpful, and I still appreciate it. Sad to hear that he has passed.
- He was very kind to me when I was at Chapel Hill for a semester twenty years ago. A lovely man.
- A lovely man, intelligent and caring
- Being remembered as a very kind person is a goal for all of us.
- In graduate oral exams, he would allow a student to pick which of the 14 Euripidean plays they would like to talk about, and then launch into interesting, detailed questions.
- After a visiting lecture, he could shift on a dime from “absent-minded older professor” to “expert asking sharp, pointed, well-informed questions.”
- An extremely sweet and generous man, whom I will miss deeply.
- He was actually a very important person in my life at the time, both academically but also personally.
- I took my young daughter to see Kenneth and an English professor read “The Grinch” in Latin and English at the bookstore, and of course Kenneth was splendid at that.
- Wonderful teacher, much beloved in my era at UNC, caring, wacky, learned in both a traditional and boldly independent way, inspirational to many. Deeply religious. A few years ago in Tallahassee, he sadly told me that he was rereading Homer along with his wife Charlotte to say goodbye.
- He was a gentle giant in our field. I’ll miss him.
- I saw him in Tallahassee in late Feb. ’20 on what was my last academic trip. He was as kind and supportive as ever and served me a nice afternoon cordial. He was happy with his and his wife’s setup there, but I couldn’t help but worry in the ensuing months how the pandemic was affecting them.
- Oddly, I had just been thinking of Reckford’s classroom when I saw your post and learned of his death. Reckford had come to mind as I sat at breakfast reading the exchange of letters in the London Review of Books …[on a review of a] new translation of four of Aristophanes’ plays. Much of the exchange focuses on the naughty vocabulary in Aristophanes and how far to go, as a translator, towards the obscene end of the lexical spectrum in English. I thought back to Reckford’s gleeful discussion of those very terms in a class in Chapel Hill in the late 1970s where we read a couple of Aristophanes’ comedies.
- He was formative for me when I began at UNC.
- His beginning Greek class was the very first course I attended at Chapel Hill. The die was cast indeed!
- He was a lovely man and also generous to the APA staff. I still have reprints of articles he sent to me after his presidency.
- He and Charlotte, on their honeymoon, visited us in Rome; Kenneth spent a part of the afternoon playing with our 6 and 2-year-old kids in the Villa Aurelia gardens. As well as a renowned scholar, he was a warm and funny human being, too.
- Kenneth was a remarkable gentleman & teacher, who, over the years, became a good friend as well. He will be greatly missed.