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May 28, 2002

Hyatt closes Emory career with honors

By Michael Terrazas


“I assure you,” Irwin Hyatt Jr. told a recent visitor to his White Hall office who commented that the senior associate dean of Emory College did not look old enough to retire, “I feel old enough.”

Old enough, perhaps, but also accomplished enough to carry with him into retirement the 2002 Thomas Jefferson Award, given each year to a faculty member who shows “significant service to the University through personal activities, influence and leadership.”

Hyatt has fit that bill for a half-century, ever since he matriculated as a student in the college in 1952. Fourteen years after that he joined the college faculty, and now, 50 years later, Hyatt is retiring from his alma mater and a university he’s been around his entire life.

“I always assumed I would go to Emory, and that was fine with me,” said Hyatt, whose father, Irwin Hyatt Sr., was a oral surgeon in Atlanta and taught on the faculty of Emory’s Dental School for almost 30 years in the first half of the century. Though he maintained a private practice near the Biltmore Hotel in what is now Midtown, Hyatt Sr. saw patients in Emory Hospital and often carried his son along with him.

Now, so many years later, Hyatt Jr. is saying goodbye to the institution he’s called home for nearly his entire professional career. “There comes a time in life to move on to other things and to accept the fact that you’ve done what you can do,” said Hyatt, who joined the college dean’s office in 1988.

Specializing in East Asian history, Hyatt said his coming to work at Emory was “purely coincidence” as he was finishing up doctoral work at Harvard in the mid-1960s. At the time, Emory’s history department had no course offerings outside of Western civilizations, Hyatt said, and he became the University’s first area studies expert outside of Europe and the United States.

Joining the faculty at Emory may have been coincidence, but Hyatt said he and his wife, Margaret (the younger sister of one of Hyatt’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers), always knew they would return to the South after he finished his studies at Harvard. The two did spend a year in Taiwan, but apart from the random semester sabbatical here and there, the Hyatts have spent the last 33 years together in their house near campus.

And that’s just where Hyatt looks forward to spending more time once he retires. He and his wife plan to travel in Europe this fall, but other than that Hyatt plans to tackle projects around the house and maybe do some writing. “I tell people I’m going to write a series of novels on tenure and promotion,” Hyatt joked.

Those subjects—tenure and promotion—have occupied much of Hyatt’s time since he joined the college administration, and working with junior faculty and students is what he said he will miss most when he leaves. His worst memories of academia, Hyatt said, are of being visited by former students and not remembering their names. “It’s beyond embarrassing,” he said.

But the good memories far outweigh the bad, and Hyatt said the highlights of his career have been working with various groups: his stint as an advisor to the College Honor Council in the 1970s; his work with the pedagogy-oriented Lilly Fellows in the 1980s; and his work with the College Faculty Council (which handles tenure and promotion matters) as senior associate dean.

“For 25 years, I had thought of myself as a teacher, and I knew a lot of students who personally meant a great deal to me,” Hyatt said. “But [since joining the administration] it’s been very rewarding to get to know faculty, particularly the younger faculty, and that never would have been possible when living in a single department.”