Introducing: Professor George Pepe
“Logos, meaning word, and rhoia, meaning flow,” he said after his self-diagnosis. As outgoing chair of the University’s Department of Classics, Pepe is well versed in Latin and the origins of words. Surrounded by full bookshelves on all three walls (the fourth is windowed), Pepe’s office is a haven for ancient Greek and Roman literature, the Mac computer sitting atop his desk being one of the few indicators of modern times amidst a collection of ancient tomes.
While Pepe may consider himself more logorrheic than intellectual, he grew up in an Italian immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx (think Woody Allen accent) and became interested in literature at a young age. Although he can now read German, French, Italian, Ancient Greek and Latin, Pepe was first fascinated by simpler texts: comic books.
“To a certain extent, I had always been a kind of bookworm, as a kid starting with classic comic books and then progressing to discovering the public library,” Pepe said. “Actually, the first time I’d ever gone to Manhattan was when I wanted to get a book out of my local library, and they didn’t have it, and they said, ‘You can go down to the 42nd Street library.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And I went down to the 42nd Street library and sure enough they had it, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a place!”
The book Pepe was searching for was “A Walk in the Sun,” a novel about World War II. Six years old when the war ended, Pepe recalls growing up in post-WWII America. As a teenager, Pepe left his home in the Bronx after receiving a scholarship to a Jesuit high school in Manhattan, where he discovered the “other New York,” one of public libraries, Times Square, Greenwich Village, movie theaters and radio stations.
“There was a radio station that the city owned called WNYC, and WNYC had a program on Sunday nights that was symphonic music, and I can still [remember] it.”
Looking straight ahead, but not specifically at anything, Pepe recited what he referred to as “it”—the introduction to WNYC program: “Six o’clock by the century old chimes in the historic city hall. New York, the city of opportunity, with more than eight million people who live in peace and harmony and enjoy the blessings of democracy.”
“I was so wet behind the ears and gullible, I mean I believed that, or I wanted to believe it, and to a certain extent I was experiencing it,” Pepe reflected.
Although quick not to over-sentimentalize those times, Pepe has fond memories of being an adolescent in Manhattan. Today a modest man, Pepe jokingly recalls being a somewhat intolerable teenager.
“I was a terrible snob and thought that the only music you were supposed to like was classical music,” Pepe said. “So my kids later on were amazed that I knew nothing about Elvis Presley. I mean, I knew who he was, but I was like, I was too good for that. I mean I must have been insufferable.”
The son of an Italian immigrant father, Pepe was a first-generation college student. Learning Latin and Greek in high school because he “wasn’t smart enough to learn mathematics,” Pepe realized he wanted to pursue a career in classics or teaching after reading Homer’s “The Iliad” in Greek his senior year.
“My father, he was a carpenter, and he once told me about how he really admired universities because they paid people to read books,” Pepe said. “And I thought that’s a pretty good existence as opposed to swinging a hammer, and we do have a kind of lucky existence. We don’t have to spend time with only older people. I mean whatever we say about the young, they’re not querulous. They don’t whine the way the old do. Not that I’m immune from whining.”
Pepe continued to pursue Greek and Latin at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., before earning a doctorate in classics from Princeton University. After studying in Germany for a year while working on his dissertation on Greek rhetoric, Pepe returned to a United States unlike the one he had left.
“I was over [in Gemany] actually when Kennedy got shot, assassinated,” Pepe said. “And also in ‘64 when the Vietnam War started breaking out and also when the Civil Rights movement started.”
While at Princeton, Pepe dabbled in the anti-war movement, dressing up in a tie and tweed jacket and marching with fellow students through campus. Aside from political activism, he focused on finishing his Ph.D. In his last year at Princeton he got to teach Greek literature and translation, a rare opportunity for a graduate student, which he assumed after a professor fell ill. Immediately following his graduation from Princeton, Pepe was offered a teaching position in the Department of Classics at Wash. U. and has been teaching here since 1965.
Pepe teaches a variety of classes including Roman history, beginning and intermediate Latin and Greek, as well as courses for the Text & Tradition program within the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities. As a tenured professor who has been teaching for more than 45 years, Pepe gets frequent visits from his many previous students.
“This is, at least for me, one of the most gratifying parts of teaching,” Pepe said. “A former student is in town and is getting a Ph.D. in medieval English at Northwestern [University]. She did Latin with me and also Text & Tradition and a senior honors thesis on sexuality in ancient Rome, subversive sexuality. And she said, ‘I remember how embarrassed you were [when I presented my thesis].’ And I said, well you have to remember that I come from the ’50s.”
As a longstanding faculty member, Pepe has had the opportunity to work with an array of students and colleagues. Though self-proclaimed to be a desultory man with an aversion to research, Pepe is considered extremely approachable by students and faculty alike. Joseph Loewenstein, director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, said that Pepe is always the man who his colleagues turn to when seeking advice or help.
“He’s the most unfailingly generous teacher and colleague we have,” Loewenstein said. “I would say that there are a great number of faculty in history, in English, in philosophy who simply couldn’t do their work as well as they do if George weren’t there to help them out of one or another intellectual jams.”
Pepe feels equally grateful for the faculty he has engaged with over the years. While both the University and the times have brought changes to the academic experience, Pepe does feel that there are some constants.
“Obviously the University has changed a great deal, but you know Homer is Homer, Shakespeare is Shakespeare,” Pepe said. “There’s a famous phrase that’s used by Newton, although it doesn’t originate with him, explaining what he’s accomplished. He says, ‘I have stood on the shoulders of giants.’ And that’s true, and the giants aren’t just the great giants of the past like Plato and Newton, but it’s the people that were here before us who kept the place going, both faculty and students.”