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Helen North (1922 - 2012)

Centennial Professor Emerita


Helen F. North

The following was sent by President Rebecca Chopp to the campus community on Jan. 24, 2012:

I write with the sad news that Helen F. North, Centennial Professor Emerita of Classics, died on Saturday. The College has lost not just a brilliant scholar who was instrumental in building one of the most influential classics departments at a liberal arts college, but also as one who taught and cultivated relationships among generations of Swarthmore students for more than 60 years, a complete embodiment of the teacher-scholar. Helen was a gentle and gracious lady with a robust and ready sense of humor who was fiercely and firmly committed to intellectual excellence and the highest ethical standards. Her students loved her for these characteristics and because she so successfully modeled for them the joy in living the life of the mind.

Helen's colleagues immediately expressed their deepest admiration and affection for her.

"Under Helen North's leadership, the Classics Department, in the best Swarthmore tradition, valued scholarship highly, but teaching even more highly, in our case rooted in strong language teaching," says Gilbert Rose, Susan Lippincott Professor Emeritus of Modern and Classical Languages. "Helen had an enormous personal presence in the world beyond Swarthmore, in classics and in higher education more generally. In a phrase, she was a woman of enormous accomplishment."

"Professor North is the most lovely, supportive, and wise friend one can have," adds Professor of Classics Rosaria Munson. "I think that she has literally hundreds of friends who have benefited from her affection and learning."

Helen, an avid equestrian, joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1948. Years later she fondly recalled then-President John Nason informing her that she was the only job candidate who ever insisted on seeing the school's stables. She also took some pride in her decision, after President Nason said no, to proceed with recruiting a Roman Catholic priest from Morton, Pa., to come talk with students and hold weekly Newman Club meetings for the first time at the College.

While Swarthmore served as her longtime home, Helen also held visiting teaching appointments at a number of institutions, including Barnard College, Columbia University, Vassar College, and Cornell University, where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She also served as Classicist in Residence at the American Academy in Rome and held two teaching and research posts at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

Helen received virtually every major academic award to support her scholarly work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright Program, Ford Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the Guggenheim Foundation, from which she received two. That scholarship includes her first book, Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (1966), in which Helen identified the nuances of this ancient Greek ideal and traced their development, not only through all the major works of Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, but in political oratory, epigrams, and inscriptions. For this still oft-cited work she received the Goodwin Award of the American Philological Association in 1969.

Helen is also the author of From Myth to Icon: Reflections of Greek Ethical Doctrine in Greek Literature and Art (1979), in addition to dozens of articles and reports in classical and professional publications. She is the editor and translator of several classical volumes and college texts and co-wrote with her sister, Mary, two guidebooks to Ireland's earliest art and archaeology.

Helen's contributions to classics and to higher education more broadly are legion. She held leadership positions, throughout her teaching career and after, at Phi Beta Kappa, the American Academy of Rome, American School of Classical Studies in Athens, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Philological Association, which she served as president.

For her service over the years, she received the American Philological Association's Distinguished Service Medal and the Centennial Medal of the American Academy in Rome, as well as honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Dublin, Fordham University, La Salle University, where she served as a longtime trustee, and Yale University.

Although she retired from teaching at Swarthmore in 1991, Helen remained thoroughly engaged with the College community, both on and off campus. Until recently she continued to meet weekly with her colleagues in classics to read, translate, and discuss Greek poetry. She also regularly attended Alumni Weekend and the annual lectureship in classics established in her name by friends and former students in 1996. [This year, the presenter is H. Alan Shapiro '71, the W.H. Collins Vickers Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, on Thurs., March 29, at 4:30 in Science Center 101.]

Helen also attained near legendary status among alumni travelers for leading more than a dozen Alumni College Abroad trips, including the first, in 1978, to Greece. Attendees of those trips still marvel at the memories of her near-encyclopedic knowledge of even the tiniest details of Christian as well as classical symbolism.

Although she found herself in some demand as a candidate for dean or president at other institutions, Helen always resisted, once saying her friendships with former President Courtney Smith and Dean of Women Susan Cobbs brought her "close enough" to see the burden they bore.

"Teaching Greek, Greek literature in translation, mythology and religion was just delightful," she added. "I would have been a fool to give that up."

A funeral mass will be held on Sat., Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. at Notre Dame de Lourdes Church at Fairview and Michigan Ave.s, in Swarthmore. A reception at Notre Dame school will follow the service. Interment will take place at Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Notre Dame de Lourdes Elementary School, 1000 Fairview Rd., Swarthmore, Pa., 19081. A memorial gathering will also be held in the Friends Meeting House on campus on Sat., Apr. 21, at 2 p.m.


Listen: In 2009, Helen spoke with her colleagues Rosaria Munson and William Turpin about her 60-plus year career at the College.