“Epitome of grace”: Temple community celebrates the life of JoAnne Epps

Temple hosted a memorial service in honor of the late president on Friday morning.

Temple celebrated the life of former president JoAnne Epps Friday morning at the Liacouras Center. | VIRGINIA BATES / THE TEMPLE NEWS

During their speech at Friday’s celebration of life in honor of President JoAnne Epps, Marylouise Esten and Donna Lamborne made one thing clear: Epps was human, and that meant that she had flaws. 

The pair shared memories of Epps’ quirks and pet peeves, from her love of the dentist to her disdain for exclamation points.

“Believe it or not, JoAnne could get cranky,” Esten said. “Sometimes she would even go on a rant about something that drove her crazy or write a letter to a business to complain about a customer service issue. And she always said ‘How can you expect people to change if you don’t point out that they’re doing something wrong?’”

The Temple community gathered with Epps’ friends and family at The Liacouras Center for a heartfelt service in honor of the former president. Epps, who was appointed acting president in April, passed away suddenly Sept. 19. She is remembered for her advocacy, mentorship and kindness.

At 10:15 a.m., Reverend Marshall Mitchell opened the ceremony with a Baptist prayer before Terell Stafford, a jazz studies professor, performed Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” alongside a jazz band. The music for the service was personally curated by Epps before she passed. 

“If something moves you, don’t be afraid to say ‘Hallelujah,’ don’t be afraid to say ‘Amen,” Mitchell said. “Don’t be afraid to cry. We have lost a mighty oak. We have lost a dear friend.”

Loved ones read scripture excerpts, then Reverend Herbert H. Lusk III delivered a prayer of comfort to the crowd. 

Board of Trustees Chair Mitchell Morgan began the funeral remarks with a brief speech about his relationship with Epps.

“I slept very well at night knowing that she was in charge and that was even true when we dealt with significant challenges,” Morgan said. “JoAnne’s intellect, her calm demeanor, her warmth all inspired confidence in her leadership.”

After Morgan’s speech, Temple’s concert choir performed the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Temple’s concert choir performed the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at President Epps’ funeral. | RJ FRANCESCHINI / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Tracy Davidson, a 2005 communications alumna and anchor for NBC10, then shared remarks on behalf of the many communities mourning Epps. Davidson read the words of politicians, Temple faculty and legal associations, all of whom spoke of Epps’ dedication to all that she did and immense impact on the communities she was a part of.

Gov. Josh Shapiro shared a speech via a video message, in which he spoke of Epps’ optimism in improving Temple and his hopes to continue her legacy.

Interim President Richard Englert, who was appointed to the role this past Tuesday and worked with Epps during his tenure as president from 2016-2021, spoke hopefully about the positive change Epps will continue to inspire even after her passing. 

Epps often told her first-year law students, “Your job is to make the world a better place,’” Englert said.

Elmer Smith, a reporter and friend of Epps, followed Englert’s speech, sharing his admiration for her devotion to her work, especially as she frequently made history in the offices she held.

Epps served as Beasley School of Law’s associate dean for academic affairs and later dean until 2016, when she was appointed provost. She was the first Black woman to serve in these roles and as president.

After Smith concluded his remarks, Pete McDaniel, an author and Epps’ friend, spoke about a time Epps scolded him for using the word “darling” to describe people. After she corrected him, McDaniel jokingly called her sweetheart.

“She looked at me in that deadpan look of hers that you know she could give you, and you knew exactly how you had screwed up, and she said ‘Now Pete, that’s just as bad,’” McDaniel said.

McDaniel’s story was met with laughter from the crowd as Pastor Edward Fields and Temple’s Gospel Choir took the stage for an upbeat performance of Ricky Dillard’s “More Abundantly.” 

Temple’s Gospel Choir took the stage for an upbeat performance of Ricky Dillard’s “More Abundantly.” | RJ FRANCESCHINI / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Liebenberg, who Epps referred to as “sister friend,” then shared memories of their friendship and an anecdote about how they became the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of the American Bar Association. 

Liebenberg ended her speech with hope that Epps will continue to guide her loved ones after her passing.

“JoAnne will be shining her powerful light down on us, urging us to follow her example and to always help others live their dreams, realize their full potential and do what we can to leave this world a better place,” Liebenberg said.

Robert Reinstein, former dean of Beasley, also shared a video message, recounting memories of Epps’ constant consideration for others.

The video was followed with an emotional speech from three of Epps’ former law students about their time mentored by Epps. They held each other up, comforting one another amid the loss of their longtime mentor.

“JoAnne was the epitome of grace,” said Danielle Banks, a 1993 law alumna. “Not just in how she carried herself, but in how she treated others. She always gave grace no matter what she received, no matter what was given to her.”

Lamborne and Esten, Epps’ longtime coworkers and “sister friends,” followed the group and shared lighthearted anecdotes from their friendship, emphasizing Epps’ ability to connect with anyone.

“JoAnne Epps was utterly human, but what an amazing human she was,” Lamborne said.

Epps’ cousin Donal Jackson, lovingly dubbed Epps “the first female giant” because of her larger-than-life personality and devotion during his speech.

Davidson then took the stage and read Epps’ obituary, chronicling her career and personal life.

Jacqueline Johnson, a junior jazz performance major, performed “Amazing Grace,” leaving the crowd teary-eyed as Mitchell began Epps’ eulogy. Mitchell described Epps’ trailblazing nature and activism throughout her life

“JoAnne, in so many incidences in her life was a freedom fighter and one who fought for justice,” Mitchell said. 

Reverend Marshall Mitchell preached to the audience as the Temple community celebrated the life of President JoAnne Epps. | RJ FRANCESCHINI / THE TEMPLE NEWS

As the ceremony concluded, Frank Mitchell III sang the gospel hymn “Old Rugged Cross.” 

A procession and interment will take place Sept. 30 at 12 p.m. Those who wish to join the procession can gather in the 15th Street parking lot on Saturday at 10:30 a.m., after which the group will proceed to the Fairview Cemetery for the interment.

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