Temple gathers to mourn, remember university president who died suddenly

L. Harrison Jay, Epps’s husband, mourns during a vigil Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Temple University.
Jack Tomczuk

Temple University’s iconic Bell Tower was draped in black Wednesday, as staff, students, family members and others gathered a day after the sudden death of the school’s president, JoAnne A. Epps.

Several of the college’s long-time administrators offered remarks at the vigil, which also included 10 seconds of silence and student Jacqueline Johnson performing “Amazing Grace.”

“Yesterday, we lost a great leader, a great friend, a great human being,” said Temple Chancellor Richard Englert, who previously served as the university’s president. “Since then, we have all personally engaged in, and we have witnessed others, hugging and weeping throughout our campuses, throughout the city and beyond.”

Temple University Acting President JoAnne A. Epps died suddenly Tuesday.Temple University

Epps, 72, collapsed on stage Tuesday during a memorial for Charles Blockson, an influential historian who curated a collection of books and other artifacts housed at Temple centering on the African American experience. There has been no word on her cause of death.

She joined Temple’s faculty in 1985, later serving as law school dean and provost before being named acting president in April, a month after the resignation of Jason Wingard.

“She was a teacher, a lawyer, a public servant, an advocate, a prosecutor, an academic, an administrator,” Temple Vice President and Chief of Staff Marylouise Esten said at Wednesday’s gathering

“She was a leader,” Esten continued. “She was a woman with intellect, integrity, good instincts, and good judgment. She was also a person of great humility. She knew her strengths and recognized her limitations.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, Board of Education President Reginald Streater, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta were among those who attended the vigil. Students spilled out onto the grass in front of the university’s Beaury Hall to pay their respects.

“JoAnne often spoke about how people would come to Temple not necessarily expecting to stay for a long time,” Provost Gregory Mandel told the crowd. “But that this community has a way of working its way into our souls, just as it did for her.”

Mourners attend a vigil Wednesday, Sept. 20, for Temple University President JoAnne A. Epps.Jack Tomczuk

In response to Epps’s death, Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday ordered state flags in Philadelphia to be flown at half-staff.

Temple’s Board of Trustees met Wednesday to discuss next steps, but no decision was made on who will lead the university moving forward, a spokesperson told Metro.

Epps was appointed in the aftermath of Wingard’s tumultuous tenure, which included a well-publicized graduate student strike and concerns about safety, particularly following the fatal shooting of campus police officer Christopher Fitzgerald.

In a message to students and staff after her appointment, Epps noted that her first job was in Temple’s bookstore and that her mother was a longtime secretary at the college.

“We are in a period of transformation for Temple and for higher education as a whole,” she wrote. “Yes, we have challenges. But in these challenges, we have tremendous opportunity to join together to make a difference.”

A statue of an owl at Temple University’s O’Connor Plaza is seen draped in black Wednesday, Sept. 20.Jack Tomczuk