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In Memoriam: James M. Dean

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Campus remembers professor emeritus of English, former associate chair

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James M. Dean in a 2007 photo​​​

James McMurrin Dean, a member of the University of Delaware Department of English faculty for more than 30 years, died Aug. 30, 2022, after a brief illness. He was 78.

Dr. Dean joined the department as a professor in 1986 and retired in 2017, when he was named professor emeritus. He served as associate chair of the department from 2001-05 and 2013-17.

A respected scholar, he was the author or editor of several books, including The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature, and many scholarly articles. He studied often contradictory handwritten manuscripts of a Middle English literary work to make the work accessible to the modern reader.

In 2018, the University of Delaware Press published a collection of essays in Dr. Dean’s honor, entitled Later Middle English Literature, Materiality and Culture, all focusing on issues that characterized his work: the cultural, material and aesthetic aspects of later medieval English literature.

He also was dedicated to the success of his students and the Department of English, serving on many committees over the years in addition to his work at associate chair.

Known for his sly sense of humor, Dr. Dean spoke in a 2005 Messenger article about the challenge of sharing his name with the famous, ill-fated actor. He noted that he added his middle initial to his papers: “Particularly in scholarly or academic circles, they assume you can’t be a serious scholar if you have a name like that,” he said. The famous name did bring him notice in junior high and high school: “In junior high, it attracted girls who were just hoping that somehow I would be like the actor, which, of course, I wasn’t at all. I tried to affect a brooding look,” he laughed. And he did run for class treasurer in high school with the slogan “Rebel With a Cause" and won. He added that his name always drew attention, whether he was applying for a loan or buying a new car.​

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Tributes and remembrances

Many of Dr. Dean’s colleagues shared their memories.

• Kevin Kerrane, professor emeritus of English: “For many years Jim and I lived just a block apart, and only about a half mile from Memorial Hall, and it was always a pleasure to walk with him to or from work. He was unfailingly genial, thoughtful and very practical. While his academic interests were highly traditional, his approaches to teaching were wonderfully innovative -- and even playful. He and [his wife] Jenny were great supporters of drama at UD, and in Jim's honor some of us are hoping to organize a play reading, open to the public, in the spring--perhaps the first in an ongoing series. It would be a good way to maintain his contribution to the life of our community, while bringing together students and faculty (including retirees).”

• Dee Baer, retired faculty member in the Department of English: “I first met Jim when I was a graduate student in his class. I wrote a paper on Frances Power Cobbe, a feminist reformer, philosopher and Irish/Anglo writer in the 19th century. I went up to his office after getting the paper back with an A marked on it, crossed out to a B+, crossed out to an A-. I wasn't interested in challenging the grade, but rather interested in knowing what he'd been thinking, and why he'd left traces of his grading conundrum on the paper! After a short discussion, Jim said, ‘It sounds like a paper you wrote because you'd like to teach about this writer and her period….’ And I said, ‘Well, of course, you know I'm in the L&P track here.’ Jim looked a bit confused and asked me what L&P was -- Literature and Pedagogy. I explained that it was one of several master’s level tracks that the department offered and the one that I was working through. He hadn't known what L&P was (which told me a lot about my other professors' responses to my work) and asked me to fill him in. That began an engaging relationship that focused on students, literature and and how to connect the two, which lasted through the years I was an instructor in the department, acting director of the Writing Center, Writing in the Disciplines consultant, as well as instructor for ENGL 205 at the Wilmington campus. Sitting in on his ENGL 205 class, with his blessing, gave me great ideas for engaging even older working students in this ancient, but relevant, territory. His door was always open. A congenial, generous and very good man and teacher. I'll always smile when I think of him.”

• Tom Leitch, Unidel Andrew B. Kirkpartick Jr. Chair in Writing: “It's hard for me to write about Jim Dean because after all these months, I still can't believe that he's gone. As other colleagues have said, and many others could say, he was remarkably kind, perhaps the kindest academic I've ever known. Jim was self-effacing to a fault. During his tenure as associate chair, he never courted controversy, but he didn't shrink from making hard decisions either. Along with his family, his students meant the world to him. And he interacted with those students in a wide variety of ways: as a classroom teacher to undergraduates, as a mentor to graduate students, as an adviser to students who found their way to the associate chair's office and as dramaturg, inspiration and gentle encourager to everyone who took part (or parts) in the play readings he loved to organize. I miss the violin and piano duets Jim and I practiced weekly 25 years ago, the gossip-free stories (Jim hated gossip) we swapped as neighbors on the third floor of Memorial Hall and Jim's subversively quiet sense of humor. I'd say that his most notable teaching accomplishment was getting me started in Sakai, but I'll bet lots of other people have nominees of their own. The world is darker for his departure, and brighter for the life he shared with us.”

• Lois Potter, professor emerita of English: “Even before I met Jim Dean, I heard graduate students talking about him, always describing him as someone who was known to care about students. This turned out to be absolutely right. When I started trying to do things that would bring students and faculty together, he was always the most eager participant. Staged readings, play readings, Renaissance banquets, the Robin Hood conference, the Medieval-Renaissance colloquium -- he was always there, always supportive. Just thinking about those postcolloquium meals with faculty and grad students in the Crab Trap or Ali Baba makes me feel warm inside. Working with him on the job search that brought us two of our most distinguished colleagues, I found him not only perceptive but immensely thoughtful and kind. It was a pleasure to know someone who was so thoroughly involved with his subject, his students, and his department -- a lovely person. Jim could be very eloquent -- as when he persuaded the department to let us appoint two superb Renaissance scholars when we had advertised only for one. And he was always pleased at any success that a student achieved and made a point of telling others about it. Much student behavior that annoyed others struck him simply as funny, perhaps because he had children of his own. Just writing about him, I find that I'm hearing his soft, diffident voice, which never said anything bad about anyone, and I think it's telling me that I've said quite enough.”

• Chris Penna, professor of English: Along with the delightful play readings, his collegial generosity and his unfailing good humor, which so many have commented on, Jim also had a love of all things having to do with Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies. We shared many a chat and many a long email exchange performing close readings of box scores and analyzing (often bemoaningly) the Phillies' prospects. I thought often of Jim this past October when the Phillies made their tantalizing and ultimately disappointing World Series run. I think it would have delighted and exasperated him to no end.”

• Steve Bernhardt, Andrew B. Kirkpatrick Jr. Chair Emeritus in Writing and former department chair: “Jim was an unfailing supporter of students, always committed to improving his teaching and providing rich classroom experiences. He was totally unselfish, ready to work toward a stronger, fairer department and University without regard for what might benefit him personally. He gave freely of his time to committee work and brought wise counsel to department deliberations. He worked assiduously at his medieval scholarship, with strong contributions to the field and deeply informed teaching.”

•Jerry Beasley, professor emeritus of English and former department chari: “Jim and I worked closely together, as he was associate chair when I was department chair in the early 2000s. I always counted on him for wise counsel. He was a kind and good man, really smart and generous. His dedication to his students was exemplary, and his enthusiasm for play readings bringing faculty members and graduate students together contributed greatly to the fine collegiality and supportive atmosphere in the department that he cared so much about.”

• Mary Richards, professor emerita of English: “In my case, Jim's reputation preceded my arrival at U. D. My former colleague at the University of Tennessee, John Hurt Fisher, himself a Chaucer scholar, had spoken highly of Jim on several occasions. Jim's modesty belied his acumen and breadth of learning. As time passed, Jim' s excellence as a teacher and mentor became ever more apparent. His former students have flourished as faculty members and scholars, and they all praise his role in their professional lives.”

• Kristen Poole, Ned B. Allen Professor of English: “Jim was on the hiring committee when I was hired at UD, and from our very first interactions he was incredibly kind and generous. He went out of his way to see that candidates were well taken care of, down to the smallest detail. When Martin and I moved to Newark, we lived around the corner from Jim, so he was also a neighbor, and he graciously helped us to get settled into our new home. Before we knew anyone else in town, he was watering our plants and feeding our cats, as well as helping me plan syllabi. He was a genuine caregiver, and I know that he took care of his graduate students in the same way. He loved community, and along with Lois Potter opened his living room to play readings that were a delight. Jim was obviously a formidable scholar, but the thing that stands out to me the most in thinking about him was his sense of humor. He was warm, compassionate and a wonderful mentor. He is missed.”

• Julian Yates, H. Fletcher Brown Professor of English: “Prof. James (Jim) Dean and Ned B. Allen Professor Emerita Lois Potter led the search that hired Kristen Poole and me in 1995-6. Jim’s office was opposite mine, and we fell into a routine of daily conversation. He essentially oriented me to campus, and we embarked on a 20-year long conversation about academic life and, in particular, teaching medieval literature (we both frequently taught ENGL 205 “British Writers 1,” which covers roughly the years 600-1700 CE). Jim also taught medieval surveys and a course on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. We would regale one another with the highs and lows of classroom life; experiments we tried; and talk through what was working and what was not. One of the highlights, was Jim’s inspired idea, in place of quizzes, to divide students into teams and have them come up with Jeopardy-style questions based on the readings. Jim would then emcee the “game show” finale in best Alex Trebeck style, which his students adored. Jim was also a committed and nurturing dissertation director and supervised a steady stream of graduate students specializing in Medieval Literature.

“Jim was one of the most self-effacing people I have had the pleasure of meeting. He was also something of a perfectionist when it came to his own writing, which meant that writing took time, especially since he worked in multiple languages. In conversation, he would refer to his now classic treatment of the idea of The World Grown Old in Later Medieval Literature (Medieval Academy Press, 2014) with wry self-deprecation as ‘the book grown old’ — partly for the fun of the joke but also, in part, to see how his interlocuter would react. Once you got to know Jim, you realized that there was a winking humor and critical reserve to his modesty. When, on occasion, we attended lectures together at the Modern Language Association or the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Jim was met by a chorus of smiling hellos and handshakes from the leaders of the field. Everyone in Middle English Studies knew him and his work, especially on John Gower, his lifelong interest, beside Geoffrey Chaucer. Jim was also one of the founder members of the decade-long work-in-progress group Medieval/Renaissance Workshop (1997-2007) and was responsible for bringing key figures in medieval studies to campus, such as Caroline Dinshaw (NYU), a pioneer in Queer Theory and Medieval Studies.

“Upon Lois Potter’s retirement, Jim took up the mantle of convening her highly successful play-reading group, a tradition he continued until his own retirement. The group provided a wonderful opportunity for students and faculty to read all manner of early period plays aloud, canonical works by William Shakespeare, but also the fascinating, strange and largely unread.

“Jim was also an excellent departmental citizen, serving as associate chair, and on every departmental committee at some point in his career.

“An avid hiker, after retirement, Jim and his beloved Jenny Dean would travel. He and I would meet, as his schedule allowed, for coffee in Walter’s (the much-loved café that used to be in the basement of Hullihen Hall). He would tell me about his and Jenny’s adventures. Jim always got the Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix. I risked the coffee. We both brought our own sandwiches. Jim liked peanut butter and jelly. I can picture the sandwich now.”​

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About James M. Dean

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​James M. Dean

Born and reared in Berkeley, California, he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of California at Riverside and his master’s and doctoral degrees at Johns Hopkins University. Before joining the Delaware faulty, he taught at Colgate, Stanford and Tufts universities.

He is survived by his wife, Jennifer, sons Matthew and William (Cailey), half-sister Rory Dean-Evans (Carl Evans), half-sister Ellen Dean (Tom Starbuck) and stepbrother Michael Kaufman.

Donations in Dr. Dean’s memory may be made to the University of Delaware, Development and Alumni Relations, 83 East Main St., Newark, DE 19716, directing contributions to the Department of English or the Resident Ensemble Players.

To read his obituary or send online condolences, visit Nichols-Gilmore Funeral Home.​

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​ Article by UDaiy staff, photo by Tyler Jacobson
Published December 22, 2022​

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