Late Temple University President JoAnne A. Epps. (Temple University)

Hundreds gathered on Friday to celebrate the life of JoAnne A. Epps, the former Temple University president who died last week at 72. 

Tributes flowed in from officials around Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, many of whom turned out to the Liacouras Center on Broad Street, joining members of Epps’ family, the Temple community, and the general public. Graduate and undergraduate classes at Temple were canceled for the day so students could attend. 

Danielle Banks, a Temple Law alum, spoke for many who got the chance to know Epps. 

“JoAnne was a beacon of support, ensuring our success, affirming our potential,” said Banks. “This was true for so many of her law students, for us Black lawyers in the sometimes unforgiving legal world that she knew we were navigating on a daily basis.” 

The energy in the auditorium was at turns sorrowful and cheerful, as speakers held back tears, cracked jokes, gave thanks, and said their goodbyes. 

Testimonies focused on Epps’s many accomplishments and her dedication to Temple, social justice, aiding emerging lawyers, and boosting diversity in the legal profession. Stories of retail therapy, her gentle chiding of friends, love of gift-giving, trips to Tokyo, and more were told, adding a personal touch. 

Epps worked at Temple for 38 years, starting as an associate professor of law in 1985. Four years later she became Temple’s associate dean of student affairs, a role she held for 19 years before being appointed executive vice president and provost. Finally, this April, she stepped in to become Temple’s 13th president. The obituary read at the ceremony noted Epps was the first Black woman to serve in each of these roles. 

Two governors paid tribute, Ed Rendell via a written statement and Josh Shapiro via filmed message. Shapiro recalled speaking with Epps before giving the commencement address at Temple’s graduation in May.

“You couldn’t help but feel hopeful about your tomorrow because of JoAnne’s infectious optimism,” he said. “While there is rightful sadness we feel, let us all rejoice in a life well lived by JoAnne.” 

Epps’ cousin Donal Jackson spoke for the family by offering some family history, tracing ancestors from Virginia and Chester County. He shared stories of a religious upbringing in Cheltenham’s historic La Mott neighborhood. There Epps stood out as a high schooler, as the first Black cheerleader and a leader in student government. 

The program for the ceremony included an excerpt from Epps’ junior high school yearbook, one that prefigured her passion for fashion, education, and pouring into those coming after her. It read, in part, “Jo, officer of her homeroom three times, President of Student Council, loves Latin and collecting earrings, captain of cheerleaders [and] hopes to work with children.”

Richard Englert, recently appointed president of Temple, praised Epps’ “legacy of fairness and opportunity and genuine respect for all god’s children.”

Englert summed up Epps’ ethos by quoting Philadelphia School Board president and Temple Law grad Reginald Streater, on the words Epps would tell to first year Temple Law students.

“She would say, ‘Your job is to make the world a better place.’”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...