Editors Note: The following is a speech given by Dean JoAnne A. Epps as she accepted the Woman of Spirit Award from Women Against MS on May 26.
Thank you for that very kind introduction. I really am not sure what qualifies me to be standing before you today. There are so many more worthy honorees – people who have done much more than I have, who have made far more of a difference, whose accomplishments are far more worthy of recognition. So when Molly first called me about this, I said “Thank you, but no”. It didn’t take long, though, for me to change my mind and accept. Let me tell you why I first said no, and then said yes.
First, I said no because, as I’ve said already, I love the feeling of helping, but hate being recognized for doing so. Second, I work for an institution, which, like WAMS, relies on the loving support of donors. These are people who choose where to direct their philanthropy. No one whom I know has an unlimited amount of money. So I am always hesitant to ask people to support something if in doing so, I might be directing money away from Temple. So I don’t accept this sort of role very often.
But I said yes here – for two important reasons. First, I care about multiple sclerosis (MS). It has touched my life only indirectly, but I have friends with MS (my college roommate) as do relatives and friends of friends. I know, from my friends, how MS changes, dramatically, how one is able to live. I studied law, not science, which means, obviously, that I have spent exactly zero days in med school. But I believe MS will someday be cured. That won’t happen, however, without research. And research is costly. So I lend my presence today to something I care about. Also, while Temple is my first love, I can be passionate about more than one thing. And so can you.
So, they told me I had 5-8 minutes to talk, and I could talk about whatever I wanted to. I’ve already used a couple of my minutes explaining myself. In my remaining time, I want to make just one point that I am trying, desperately and not always successfully, to follow in my own life. SLOW DOWN. And here’s what I mean by that. Not just the obvious “Take time out – or time off. Put the gadget down and talk or read a book”. I mean slow down and notice what’s coloring your world. Slow down and notice people. Slow down and notice events.
Let me give you an example of noticing people. Two years ago I lost a beloved colleague, Eddie Ohlbaum. Some of you in the audience knew him. He was the architect of Temple Law School’s acclaimed trial advocacy program. Eddie and I were good friends for almost 30 years. We taught all over the globe together, including China, Japan and war-torn Bosnia. He’s been gone for more than two years, yet many of us in the Law School still find ourselves saying “Gee, if Eddie were here, he’d . . . fill in the blank.” Eddie and I were close all the way up to the end. I loved him, and I know he knew it. But I never thanked him. I never thanked him for all he had done for – and meant to – so many of our students – impact my colleague Debbie Feldman and I joyfully heard over and over again – after his death.
Last Friday, we memorialized Peter Liacouras, former Temple President. As was made clear at the memorial, Peter was a “complicated” person. He held strong views. He was fiercely competitive, yet fiercely loyal. He was, with the support of our Trustees, the driving force behind the transformation of Temple from a commuter school to a world-class research university. I knew Peter pretty well, and we had many conversations. But I was always too focused on the topic of the day to slow down and take stock of all that he gave – to the University, to the city, and to me.
My point here? I is I, not Eddie or Peter, who bears the weight of those unspoken words. Neither of them expected thanks, I am certain, though I think they would have appreciated it. But I – I – would have been better if I’d slowed down, noticed, and said that my world was better because of you. Thank you, friend, for a job well done and a life well-lived.
“I want to make just one point that I am trying, desperately and not always successfully, to follow in my own life. SLOW DOWN. And here’s what I mean by that. Not just the obvious “Take time out – or time off. Put the gadget down and talk or read a book”. I mean slow down and notice what’s coloring your world. Slow down and notice people. Slow down and notice events.”
At the other end of the world’s continuum, we all need to slow down and notice the things we need to change. One example? The sharp decline in civility, decorum, and respect for authority in this country. As an aside, I loved my parents deeply but I never wanted to be them. And here I am, getting old, and sensing that more and more I’m sounding like them. So forgive me if this sounds like your increasingly impatient, cranky, grandparent. And I also want to emphasize that this comes with no political agenda, because that is not my purpose. There are reports that behavior is deteriorating in some of our nation’s high schools, because high school students feel that it’s okay to challenge, belittle and berate their teachers. Politicians, not just current candidates, feel no obligation to respect the Presidency, the Supreme Court, or the sacred principles of the Constitution on which our country rests.
So here are some things I ask you to slow down and notice. Notice that medical research is too often held hostage to unrelated political agendas. Notice that we still live in a world where the economic potential of your daughters is dwarfed by that of your sons. Notice that the indigent defense system in this nation, and particularly in this Commonwealth, is rapidly approaching the point where the quality of justice you receive is directly connected to your ability to pay. Notice that too often the quality of a child’s education, and in turn her or his life potential, is defined by that child’s zip code (thank you, Mayor Kenney, from whom I borrowed this last example). Notice, as my husband said the other day, that you woke up on the right side of the green grass, that you are able to walk downstairs to a refrigerator with food in it, or drive to a food store and buy anything you want. He’s right. Those of us in this room are mightily blessed. So once you notice, don’t look away. Make a comment, write a letter, offer words of appreciation or encouragement, express compassion, sign a petition. Just don’t fail to see. Instead, notice that there is much that we each can do to make this a more just, civil, and fair world. It can start with two simple words, “I noticed . . .”.
In the end, I want to thank all of you who are here. If you’re here, you’re supporting Women Against Multiple Sclerosis. That’s a good thing. I want also to thank those of you who are here to support me. My many professional friends who have bought seats or tables, thank you.
My Bad Ass Book Club is here. My Temple colleagues, including six recent graduates thanks to the generosity of Trustee Chip Marshall, are here. My husband, Jay, is here. Thank you. You are my support, my inspiration, and my energy. Anything I am is better because you are in my life. Let’s cure Multiple Sclerosis, and let a cure be just one in a series of things we see as a dream but make happen as a reality. Thank you, and thank you, WAMS, for this wonderful honor.