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(Enlarge) The Rev. Dr. Ira Zepp

The Rev. Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp Jr., professor emeritus of the religious studies department at McDaniel College, died peacefully at his home on Aug. 1. He was 79.

In a memorial tribute by McDaniel College president Joan Develin Coley, she recalled that Dr. Zepp “joined the faculty in 1963, first as dean of the Chapel, then as full-time professor of religious studies, and taught full time until his retirement in 1994.

“His electrifying courses on taboo topics like human sexuality, death and racism, and his serious scholarship on a wide range of subjects, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the culture and religion of Islam, earned him much popularity and esteem.”

Coley’s tribute noted that Zepp “participated in non-violent activism and marched in Selma, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

After his retirement, Zepp taught an occasional “honors” classes at McDaniel and he continued to teach at Carroll Community College until 2008.

Zepp was born Nov. 15, 1929 in Madonna, Md,, the son of the late Ira G. and Nellie Katheryn (Foard) Zepp Sr.

He was the husband of 57 years to Mary Elizabeth (Dodd) Zepp. 

Surviving him, in addition to his wife, are children Alan P. Zepp and wife Noelle DeMars of Westminster, Karen P. Zepp of Columbia, Paul H. Zepp and partner Vincent Sargent of Van Nuys, Calif., and Jody K. Zepp of Owings Mills; granddaughter Rachael E. Carter; siblings Murray Zepp of Rising Sun, Patricia Mikkonan of Bel Air, and Dale Zepp of Montana.

He was preceded in death by a sister, Elsie Hutchison.

Dr. Zepp graduated from McDaniel College, 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. He earned a Ph.D. in 1971 from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.

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

Teaching in turbulent times

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 McDaniel 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.”

Dr. Charles 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 Dr. 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 Coley’s tribute to Zepp, she wrote: “Daughter Jody Zepp said her parents’ 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,’ Ira said. ‘I will love the hell out of them, or better yet, heaven into them.’ ”

Dr. Pam Zappardino, who along with Dr. Collyer were inspired and encouraged by Dr. Zepp to be co-founders of the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, said, “I was a student at (then-Western Maryland) 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.

The author of a dozen books, Zepp viewed language as a tool for both shaping and expressing his ideas.  In 1981, he wrote “Sacred Spaces of Westminster.” 

In part of his introduction, he wrote, “This study is an attempt to suggest the religious significance of the large number of ‘natural’ and ‘secular’ symbols and areas of Westminster and in so doing to observe how the city reflects archetypical … human consciousness.”

In addition to his many professional accomplishments, for many 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.

Although Westminster and McDaniel College are quick to claim Zepp, he was foremost, a citizen of the world. In the biographical notes from the book, “Sacred Places,” it says that Zepp “also studied at the University of Edinburgh, Gottingen, Harvard and at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as well as in India and Eastern Europe.”

Collyer observed that Zepp carried out scholarly research on Martin Luther King Jr., producing books such as “The Social Gospel of Martin Luther King Jr.,” “Search for the Beloved Community” with Kenneth L. Smith; and “Nonviolence: Origins and Outcomes,” which Zepp wrote with Collyer. 

Friends said Zepp leaves a legacy with which it is our responsibility to continue to build upon. Fortunately, he laid a foundation upon which we can work.

Zappardino notes that Zepp “was a critical partner with Walt Michael in the founding of Common Ground on the Hill, an organization in which the traditional music and art of many cultures brings people together in community.”

Collyer wrote that the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education is another legacy of Zepp. 

The center, said Collyer, “is a program of Common Ground that carries on Ira’s legacy by promoting greater knowledge of the civil rights movement and of the worldwide family of nonviolence traditions to which that movement belongs.”

Said Zappardino, “Ira was an optimist. In a very real way, I am who I am because I knew Ira ... and we often laughed about some of the trouble that’s gotten me into. I expect I’ll get into more trouble as I go along. And that Ira will still be cheering me on.”

Memorial service Aug. 29

A memorial service celebrating Zepp’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, at Big Baker Chapel on the campus of McDaniel College with the Rev. Carroll Yingling officiating.

Arrangements are by the Myers-Durboraw Funeral Home in Westminster.  The family will receive friends immediately following the service at McDaniel Lounge on campus.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, P.O. Box 552, Westminster, MD 21158.

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