May 5, 2003

Seventh-inning stretch

By Eric Rangus

Peter Dowell likes baseball and a lot of people know it.

For instance, baseball was the theme of the recent retirement party thrown for him by staff in Emory College. He co-teaches an American studies class in the Institute for Liberal Arts (ILA) called “Baseball in American Culture.” The most recent offering was this past fall, and the course is one of the most popular on campus, selling out faster than a Braves playoff game—sometimes much faster.

Dowell likes discussing the game, too, which he says is the country’s most historically and culturally relevant. Symbolically, then, a framing of Dowell’s professional career within the context of his favorite sport is most appropriate.

But more about that in a second.

At the end of this semester Dowell, senior associate dean of academic affairs in Emory College, will step down from that position and focus on teaching over
the next two years. That’s when he’ll retire for good.

So he says.

“I made the decision three years ago,” said Dowell, who has been at Emory as a faculty member in English and American studies since 1963. Baseball-wise, just for context, the Braves were still in Milwaukee.

“I first spoke to [then-] Dean Steve Sanderson about retiring, then to [interim] Dean Bobby Paul. It was a five-year plan: Three more years as dean, step down, spend two more years teaching, then retire. I think that’s still the way it’ll go, although I reserve the right to change my mind about it,” he said, laughing.

Dowell has a spirited, gregarious laugh—it’s remarkably loud—almost loud enough to rattle the books in his office. He has a distinctive way of speaking, too. His volume shifts from almost a whisper to a shout in half a beat. It keeps listeners on their toes.

Since Dowell will remain on faculty, he is retiring—from the deanship—but he isn’t going anywhere. He will teach his baseball course and an introduction to poetry class over the next two springs. He will be off during the fall semesters, reading and writing, and spending time with his wife Valerie at their two homes in Atlanta and Maine.

After taking much of this summer off, Dowell will return to the office in August to help ease the transition of his successor, Tom Lancaster, currently associate professor of political science.

“I was always fascinated by American history,” said Dowell, who graduated high school in California after growing up near Washington, D.C. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton.

“Then I got to college and I thought I was going to be a history major, but I took a freshman English course on Shakespeare, had a wonderful teacher, and that whetted my appetite,” he continued. “Then I found something at Princeton called ‘American Civilization.’ You could major in a variety of fields, but also could participate in this program that crossed fields. I realized that I could cultivate my interests in both literature and history.”

So, Dowell majored in English with a concentration in American civilization. He earned a master’s in English at the University of Minnesota, then a Ph.D. from that institution in American studies.

When he came to Emory 40 years ago, Dowell did so knowing his appointment was going to be in the English department but understood that he’d be teaching in the ILA as well.

In the mid-1960s, Dowell became head of undergraduate studies in English (in his career he’s held most every departmental administrative post at one time or another). The only thing that ended those administrative posts was Dowell’s move to the college office in 1988.

“I guess I enjoyed it,” Dowell said of administration. “And I must have been good at it, because people kept asking me to it.”

Dowell’s imprint can be felt all over Emory College. He was involved in the effort to create Emory’s program in African American studies, and he has done a great deal of work to build Emory’s scholar programs. Dowell helped create the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars Program and is coordinator of the Emory Scholars Program (he will remain involved with both programs over the next two years, as well).

And literally thousands of students have passed through his office, where Dowell has dispensed equal parts advice, encouragement, wisdom, challenges, punishment and congratulations, depending on the situation. His effect on the students who have passed through that office is undeniable.

One of them, Jonathan Butler (’96C) an attorney in Arlington, Va., went so far as to send a letter to several Emory College staff members and University administrators last month praising Dowell upon his retirement.

“Dean Dowell is a pillar in the Emory community; his commitment to service is matched only by his willingness to help young people grow and develop,” Butler wrote. “His quiet leadership and his commitment to scholarship and service deserve recognition beyond mere words.”

Rarely can Dowell make an appearance on campus without receiving notice and gratitude for his service. For instance, last month he presented merit scholarships to Oxford continuees—something he does every year—and was given a wooden pen that had been carved from a beam in Seney Hall.

The Emory College retirement bash in his honor drew more than 100 people to the Emory Conference Center. The baseball-themed event—complete with a baseball cake, stadium pretzels and piles of Cracker Jack—brought all sorts of stories and a wide variety of gifts, like a personalized Braves jersey, a Hank Aaron bat and Senators and Twins caps. There were non-baseball gifts, too: A laptop computer, for one, and a framed print from Julia Kjelgaard of visual arts.

“It’s nice to bask in the glow of people expressing their appreciation for me,” Dowell admitted, with a tone of gratitude.

With Dowell’s interests in mind, he was asked to name a player—modern or historical—whose career most matched his own. He came up with an interesting choice.

Eddie Yost, a third baseman for the Washington Senators from 1944–58, was a hero of Dowell’s as a boy growing up in the D.C. area. In all, Yost played 18 (largely unremarkable) seasons in the major leagues.

He made just one All-Star team and never played for a World Series winner. (The hapless Senators, Dowell’s favorite team growing up, were hung with the slogan “Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League” and were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of their time). The franchise eventually moved to Minnesota, where it is now the Twins.

“There was nothing flashy or spectacular about him,” Dowell said of Yost, who finished his playing career with the Angels in 1962, the year before Dowell’s professional career began. “He just came out and played the game every day.”

But there was more to Yost’s career than his pedestrian-even-for-his-time .254 lifetime batting average. He scored more than 100 runs five times in his career and had eight seasons where he walked more than 120 times. A lead-off hitter much of his career, Yost did his job very well, and those who know the game can fully appreciate it.

Just like the appreciation expressed for Dowell at his baseball party. It seemed everyone had a story chronicling something he did that may not have been noticed.

“We found out so many things he did behind the scenes,” said Barbara Lawson, office manager in Emory College and Dowell’s assistant all 15 years of his deanship. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better work partner.”

Lawson was referring to things like the way Dowell would boost the spirits of students with encouragement. It was something he never drew attention to. To use another baseball reference, his contributions couldn’t be found in the box score.

But to students like Butler, Dowell’s contributions were immeasurable. “Dean Dowell embodies what I believe are the fundamental values of University: leadership, scholarship and service,” he wrote in his concluding paragraph. “[N]o one can truly replace an irreplaceable person. Thank you, Dean Peter Dowell, your selfless sacrifice has been greatly appreciated.”