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Dayhoff: Remembering McDaniel College professor who worked tirelessly for cause of social justice | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Dr. Ira Zepp Jr., professor emeritus of the religious studies department at McDaniel College, died at his home on Aug. 1, 2009. Zepp was a pastor, professor, and community leader who worked tirelessly in the cause of social justice. He was in the forefront of desegregating local businesses and schools, in Westminster and Carroll County.
The Rev. Dr. Ira Zepp Jr., professor emeritus of the religious studies department at McDaniel College, died at his home on Aug. 1, 2009. Zepp was a pastor, professor, and community leader who worked tirelessly in the cause of social justice. He was in the forefront of desegregating local businesses and schools, in Westminster and Carroll County. (Submitted photo)

It was over 11 years ago that the Rev. Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp Jr., professor emeritus of the religious studies department at McDaniel College, died at his home on Aug. 1, 2009. He was 79.

As a result of recent events, a number of us who worked with Zepp have been reminded of his legacy of working tirelessly in the cause of social justice. Zepp was a pastor, professor, and community leader. He was in the forefront of desegregating local businesses and schools, in Westminster and Carroll County, and Western Maryland College. Throughout the country he was a teacher and an activist. He marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and used our proximity to Washington DC as a springboard for many activities there. He inspired students to create the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education.

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In full disclosure, I first met Zepp at the Westminster United Methodist Church in the early 1960s. He, in part, introduced me to Western Maryland College — now McDaniel College.

He greatly influenced my world view and became a very trusted, and loyal friend and advisor for life. Shortly after his death I wrote a number of newspaper articles about him. Much of this discussion was first published at that time in the Baltimore Sun. At a time in history such as 2020, it is important to remember his legacy and build upon his successes. Zepp was a great influence upon who we are as community today.

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Zepp graduated from then-Western Maryland College in 1952. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Drew Theological Seminary; after which he served a number of churches in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey before joining the faculty at McDaniel in 1963, first as dean of the chapel, then as full-time professor of religious studies. He then taught full time until his retirement in 1994. He earned a doctorate in 1971 from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.

Zepp touched many lives. He was a man of enormous charisma, wisdom, and compassion. He returned to Westminster in the 1960s after the community and the college had begun wrestling, in the mid-1950s, with race relations and the civil rights movement.

The college has always been known as the first co-education college below the Mason-Dixon Line. However, integrating the college was a struggle. The Baltimore Colts began their summer practice at Western Maryland College in the late 1950s. Many local historians accept that it was the dynamic of having African American athletes on the Baltimore Colts that provided a major impetus in the desegregation of Westminster — and the college.

From 1955 until the mid-1960s there were a series of trials and tribulations integrating both the college and Westminster. In a Feb. 3, 2001, correspondence, Zepp reported that the “first African-Americans to graduate were Charles Victor McTeer … and Charles Smothers. They graduated in 1969.”

Pam Zappardino along with Charles Collyer were inspired and encouraged by Zepp to be co-founders of the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education. In 2009, Zappardino said in an interview, “I was a student at the college in the late ’60s, when change was all around us. Ira freed us as students to stand up for what we believed and to stand strong in the face of criticism.

“He also taught us how to question and how to enter into real dialogue with folks with whom we disagreed. I learned from Ira, mostly by example, how to confront issues nonviolently. I came to understand by watching him that nonviolence is more than just a tactic, it is a way of life.”

Collyer and Zappardino recall that Zepp inspired generations of students to lead lives committed to service, activism and peace.

In an interview in 2009, Collyer said he first met Zepp about 12 years ago. Collyer said Zepp “participated in, and freed others to participate in, the American civil rights movement.”

Collyer reiterated that Zepp “was one of the members of the clergy who went to Selma, Alabama, in 1965… These efforts resulted in the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 which made barriers to voter registration and voting illegal — and Dr. Zepp was a part of that.”

It was not easy. In a memorial tribute written by then-McDaniel College president Joan Develin Coley shortly after Zepp’s death in 2009, she recalled that Zepp’s “advocacy of civil rights was unpopular in their Westminster neighborhood of the mid-1960s. The family received hate mail and dirty looks from neighbors who didn’t like the sight of black guests at their house.”

“By virtue of taking stands you will have some people who are on the other side. I’ve made enemies, but I never think of them as enemies,” said Zepp in an interview several years before his death. “I will love the hell out of them, or better yet, heaven into them.”

In addition to his many professional accomplishments, Zepp was a trusted friend and advisor, a college professor, a foot soldier in the civil rights movement, an author and certainly the conscience and soul of McDaniel College and Westminster. He has been greatly missed.

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Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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