The McDaniel College community lost a leader, a mentor and a friend with the death of former Academic Dean and Professor Emeritus Melvin "Del" Palmer, who died Thursday, April 7, at Lorien assisted living facility in Taneytown.
A retired professor of comparative literature, and a social activist — as well as an excellent cook — Palmer was remembered by former colleagues for both his gentle moral courage and his force of intellect.
Palmer was already teaching at the college in 1968, when LeRoy Panek, professor of English emeritus, joined the faculty.
"His full name was Melvin Delmar Palmer, but everybody called him Del," Panek said. "For me he was a good friend, a mentor and for awhile when I was his associate dean, the best of all bosses."
Palmer was also the only other man in Carroll County to sport a beard at that time, or so Panek said it seemed to him.
"We once went into one establishment in Carroll County and were accused of being the Smith Brothers, the cough drop guys," he said.
The thing that stands out most in Panek's memory of his early years with Palmer was the latter's leadership during the years of student protest of the Vietnam War.
"He was a kind of a leader in thinking about and talking about what was going on in the world, in Vietnam," Panek said. "When there was an invasion of Cambodia, there was a picture of Del — who was very photogenic — up on the steps of the big chapel, speaking to a big group of students."
Yet Palmer wasn't just marching with the students, Panek said, and was not fighting the college administration. Instead, "He kind of served as a thoughtful and collegial liaison with the administration."
That was fitting with Palmer's steady demeanor, and in fact, the source of his strength of personality, according to Kathy Mangan, who first came to the college and got to know Palmer in 1977.
"He was a quiet warrior I would say — he wasn't a screamer. I think part of Del's amazing affect as human being was his gentleness," she said. "Del was part of the group that helped to integrate downtown Westminster years ago. He was always on the correct side of humane college issues, liberation issues."
Palmer lived with his wife, Nancy, who survives him, on Westminster's Pennsylvania Avenue and the couple quickly befriended Mangan when she moved nearby at the outset of her teaching career.
"They sort of adopted me. I was 27 at the time, and they often had me down to dinner and to parties. We would often go to the Maryland ballet performances together," Mangan said. "I have known them for almost 40 years. They have been an integral part of my life."
Palmer first came to the college in 1965, and served as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty from 1983 to 1990.
"He came back to the English department before he retired," Mangan said. "He always said he wanted to retire as a teacher, not an administrator."
An excellent teacher and a student favorite, Palmer won the college Distinguished Teacher Award three times during his career, more than any other McDaniel faculty member, according to Panek.
"In addition to being an incredible favorite with students, he was also actively involved with poetry and with academic scholarships. He began a Maryland High School Poetry contest on campus, which ran for years and morphed into the endowed poetry reading we have each year," Panek said. "Del was also one of the early champions of Common Ground on the Hill."
Never one for gossip, Palmer only wanted to discuss books when he dropped by Mangans office while the two were teaching. He loved poetry.
"A year ago, Del said in passing, 'All I want for my funeral is for people to get together and read the poetry of W.B. Yeats,' " Mangan said. "LeRoy [Panek] said, 'Let's do it now.' So last year, we had a wonderful evening at LeRoy's, and I think we were all just so glad we did it when Del was alive and well."
Although many current students and newer faculty members are unaware of Palmer's legacy at McDaniel, Mangan said that as word has spread of his death, she has seen more and more emails and posts from former students and colleagues about how much they learned from him as both a teacher and a human being.
"I guess he was always a nurturer. He was an amazing cook and always feeding people ... he brought me a meatloaf just a few months ago," Mangan said. "He was always the one bringing fresh treats for everyone. He was a nourisher in every way: nourishing people's souls and minds, and stomachs and brains."