BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with James Megivern,  April 27, 2004 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Title:
Interview with James Megivern,  April 27, 2004
Date:
April 27, 2004
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Megivern, Jim Interviewer: Hayes, Sherman Date of Interview: 4/27/2004 Series: SENC Notables Length 55 minutes

Hayes: I’m here today with Dr. Jim Megivern, Professor Emeritus of Religion in the Philosophy and Religion Department at UNCW. We’re going to start our oral history interview. I’m Adina Lack, archivist, and it’s December 13, 2001, and we’re in the UNCW’s archives.

Hayes: Dr. Megivern, before the tape started I was telling you that we’d like to begin with just some introductory words from you, where you grew up and how you got to Wilmington.

Megivern: Well I was born in Johnson City, New York, upstate New York. I went to the parochial schools there and got a scholarship to go to St. Joseph’s Prep in Princeton, New Jersey, so that was for high school and junior college. From there, I went to the seminary in Northhampton, Pennsylvania and did six years there and got my Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then four years of theology, right after which I went to Switzerland for my doctorate at the University of Fribourg.

I finished that in 1962 and came back to the seminary in Northhampton where I had studied for six years and taught for two years. It was my first teaching experience.

Hayes: Religion or philosophy?

Megivern: Actually I taught Hebrew and Greek, the biblical languages because they had two scripture, biblical professors who had died unexpectedly in rapid succession so even though my doctorate was in medieval historical theology, I was asked to move into the biblical. That was really the beginning, it was forty-years ago. That’s basically my chief teaching experience, the New Testament and early Christianity.

I was only there for two years when I had the opportunity to go to Rome to get a second degree, a degree in biblical studies to supplement. It was while I was there in ’65 that the strike occurred at St. John’s University in New York. It’s an involved story, but anyway I was asked if I would, upon getting my degree in Rome, come to St. John’s to chair the theology department, a very unusual situation.

It has a bearing in that it was that experience and the turmoil that was going on between faculty and administration that convinced me of the value of the AAUP, American Association of University Professors. St. John’s did not have a chapter and part of the tension between faculty and administration was that the administration was opposed to their forming a chapter. It seems to me that, in light of my four years there, that had there been a chapter, much of the tension could have been resolved. The AAUP, in my mind, is really a mediation body. It allows faculty and administrators to speak openly and to adopt principle approaches to dealing with difficulties, dealing with conflict.

So when I came here in 1974, it was one of the first things I did. I asked if there was one and I was referred to Dr. Richard Deas and he said we have one, it’s not been very active, “Would you like to be president?”

Hayes: Is he music?

Megivern: Yes, so that’s how my involvement there started. But after the four years with St. John’s, I went into a poverty program in the South Bronx for four years doing administration in a paraprofessional program with the inner city school board, getting paraprofessionals trained. They were largely black and Puerto Rican housewives, who were in the classrooms, brought into the classrooms to try to assure a bridge between the ethnic groups that were involved.

Largely the teachers were Irish, Italian, and Jewish, and the students were from the South Bronx black and Puerto Rican so these were black and Puerto Rican housewives who came in as paraprofessionals, but there was no future in it for them. It worked very well when you had a secure teacher who knew how to use, to work with the paraprofessionals.

The program I directed was funded by HEW to try to get some of these paraprofessionals into Bronx Community College and on their way toward their associate’s degree. In the four years that I was with that, of the 40 original people that we selected, when I left 25 of them either had their associate degrees or were close to it.

Hayes: Did you expect it would have those kind of success rates?

Megivern: It was an unusual success rate for those programs, but HEW, at the time, was phasing out. They had the theory that any program that was worth its salt after three years of funding by the government ought to be able to pick up its own support from the community, from whatever. Of course 1973 was the year that the city almost went bankrupt. So it wasn’t a good time. The program was being terminated in 1974.

It just so happened that I got a call in January of ’74, from Jim McGowan whom I had had as a student in his last year, which was my first year of teaching in Northhampton. We had run into one another at the philosophy convention in Boston two years previously. So he knew I was considering going back into education, to university education full-time and was looking for the opportunity. Things had developed here that he had been asked after he was hired by Dr. Hall with the intention of his becoming the new chairman of the department because Dr. Hall was turning 65.

The administration, that is Dr. Wagoner and Dr. Cahill, whom already had appointed Dan Plyler as an assistant to Dr. Cahill in the academic sphere, both of them Cahill and Plyler were scientists so they wanted somebody in the humanities to work with Dr. Cahill and an associate with Dr. Plyler. So looking around, the selection that they made was Jim McGowan and Dr. Hall, of course, was furious. He said I hired this guy to take my place, not to give him to you. The outcome was that Dr. Wagoner assured Dr. Hall that he would be given another position in the department even though Jim was still teaching part-time.

So it was then that Jim called me and told me about it and described the work. It was a combination of administration and teaching as the department chair and suggested that I might interview for it. So I applied and was on the short list. In April, I came down Easter weekend because I was teaching other programs in New York while I was directing the program in the South Bronx and doing part-time teaching in the Bronx in the Queensboro Community College and in Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

So I had to find a time when I wouldn’t have to miss class and that was why I came in Easter week.

Hayes: Is that while you were working with the HEW?

Megivern: Yes, I was still there. I knew it was terminating. The funding was going to run out in August of ’74.

Hayes: It sounds like it was a rewarding program, quite different from what you would do later on.

Megivern: But the administrative part of it, academic administration was parallel and sufficient certainly for the kinds of qualifications that the job description had. It was really because Dr. Hall and I really hit it off tremendously well.

Hayes: Had you known him before?

Megivern: No, I came down to be interviewed by him. He was really a remarkable man. He’s kind of a renaissance man. When he was approached by Dr. Randall to start, when Wilmington College went to four years in ’63, a philosophy department as part of the four-year college, and Dr. Hall was one of the few people around in town that had his doctorate. When Dr. Randall approached him, he accepted.

It was Dr. Randall, interestingly enough, who told him that he didn't want just philosophy, he wanted it to be a philosophy and religion department. Dr. Hall, I think, had some misgivings about that. Most of the time that he was teaching he did more in philosophy than he did in religion. He did the History of Western Thought in what were then 201 and 202. Our curriculum has all changed since then.

But that’s how it happened. That the department was begun as a joint Philosophy and Religion Department and the first one hired, as you know, was Dr. Shinn and then the second one hired was Dr. McGowan. So, as of 1971-72, the three-person department had to cover the waterfront both in philosophy and religion. Then a fourth person was hired, a man from Johns Hopkins, but he didn't have his degree and unfortunately never succeeded in getting it. That was the situation when I came in 1974.

The understanding was that Dr. Hall would leave the chair after my first year, but then, when things were going so well, he decided to step out at the end of the first semester. So I became chairman of the department in January of ’75.

Hayes: And you had interviewed in April, right?

Megivern: April of ’74.

Hayes: And then started here in the fall?

Megivern: Yes, I started in August, moved down in August. That’s the only semester, was the fall semester of ’74, was the only time that I was teaching before I became chair. We were over in Kenan Hall on the ground floor sharing offices. I shared mine with Dr. Hall. Dr. McGowan, who was then moving into the administration anyway, he and Dr. Shinn had an office, a cubbyhole. The other one was occupied by the Art Department.

It was an unusual setup to say the least. For that first semester, I had my office in the relatively new Bear Hall because there was space there and there wasn’t any further space in Kenan, so it’s interesting that I started in Bear Hall and finished up in Bear Hall. Meantime, of course, two wings had been built.

Hayes: Did Dr. Hall then continue to teach?

Megivern: Yes, he continued to teach part-time until his 80th birthday, which we celebrated. It was declared the Frank Hall Day. We had banners over at the new S&B Building, to which we had subsequently moved, when that opened. It was his birthday in February, I think February 26, 1988. He retired, at that point, completely and shortly after that went to the nursing home, Dixon Davis, and he died in June of 1991. In fact, his funeral was on my 60th birthday.

He was a very important figure and Adelaide, his wife, was very special. Their three boys all became very good friends, and we’re still in touch. He had played a very significant role in bringing Dr. McGowan and that was in turn the connection of how I happened to hear about it.

Hayes: So you’re grateful, hopefully, you’re grateful.

Megivern: Oh, indeed.

Hayes: So that’s the story of how you arrived here. When you came here, you’ve described a little bit what it was like in terms of your office. What did you observe when you first came down on and got interviewed? Were you kind of nervous about coming to the South? What were your feelings about the idea of moving here?

Megivern: Well, I did have some concerns because I had been following, to some degree, in the press the incidents of the Wilmington 10 and that, of course, was in ’71. That was the year that Dr. McGowan came. But the trial went on and then the conviction. They were, well, it’s, as you know, a very sorry story as far as the legal aspects of it.

That there were some guilty people involved I think is beyond question, but how on earth these 10 particular individuals other than Ben Chavess were identified as constituting the troublemakers that were responsible for burning the grocery store, I’m sure that there were at least two that were not involved that were swept into it by this Assistant District Attorney who was, I think, looking to make something of the attorney, that the District Attorney wouldn’t press charges because he knew that this star witness that they would have to use was a pathological liar, who was already in prison and had everything to gain by fixing the charges and pointing the finger.

That’s I guess the only thing I knew about Wilmington before I heard from Jim McGowan. So there was some concern there. Nonetheless, the initial experience was tremendously positive especially because of my being on campus and in that department. If you can just imagine coming into a situation where your colleagues are B. Frank Hall, Jerry Shinn, Jim McGowan, Bob Duckett.

So it was tremendously harmonious. The departmental meetings were more like coffee clutches, I guess you’d say. It was informal and friendly relations and all.

Hayes: The department started out as a Department of Philosophy and Religion and to this day it still is. So, are you considered a professor of Philosophy and Religion?

Megivern: Yes. That’s the way it’s always been identified. That’s what the department was chartered to give a degree in, Philosophy and Religion. That still is the situation. You can concentrate in one or the other and that would be indicated on your diploma, but you have to take a minimum of courses in both of them. If you come to do Philosophy, expect also to do the required, the basic study courses included in Religion and vice versa.

I don’t know of any problems that that has created. As the place has grown, naturally we are able to hire people whose concentrations were clearly more in one than in the other and tried to keep a kind of balance, which has been the case that we have today. Something like either six or seven in each area.

I was chairman for seventeen-and-a-half years, and then Walter Conser was chairman for the next six, and Joe Wilson is finishing his first three-year term. So there has been no problem as far as the conjunction of the two disciplines even though we’re well aware that the potential for conflict is there and has taken place on other campuses depending on the kind of philosophers that are hired especially. If you’re into the logical positive linguistic analysis as the basic and some would say, the only kind of philosophy, that has led to the split. I think you would see Charlotte as a case where they split into separate departments.

On the other hand, a place like East Carolina, ECU doesn’t have Religion Programs. They had somebody in earlier years who taught some biblical courses, but I think it was under western thought or Philosophy, one of the two. They didn't have a department or share a department in Religious Studies. I think that’s the case also at Appalachian. Appalachian has Religious Studies, but they separated them from the Philosophy Department.

So, I guess you’d say, you’d have to recognize what was happening in the disciplines, themselves, nationwide. I made it a practice when I became chair to attend the national conventions of both, the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. I was present, I think, it probably would have been around ’79 or ’89, where they had what was called the “Palace Revolt” in the American Philosophical Association because the positivists had more or less full control of the programming so that if you were a continental philosopher or phenomenology or other options, you wouldn’t get on the program of the APA.

At least that was the complaint. I certainly was not involved enough to know for sure how widespread it was, but they had a very dramatic showdown at the national convention that was in Washington Hilton at the time. I’m pretty sure it was in ’79. The result was that the APA bylaw broadened itself to guarantee that those that had legitimate philosophical degrees in various areas would have equally free access to the programs, which is an important aspect for people in their academic careers.

If you’re going to be featured on a program, a national program especially, there has to be cooperation. You have to know how to and be able to be scheduled _____ and that’s why it’s always interesting for people to see who the officers become in these academic organizations. Any other professional organizations, I think, have very much the same dynamic.

Hayes: That’s interesting. You have to have that perspective of management or cooperation and not be so locked into your role. You can certainly have your academic standards. I guess there has to be an attempt at pluralism even if you find a problem with pluralism.

Megivern: Well there were chairmen both at Chapel Hill and at Pembroke in the late 70’s who were interested in professionalizing, or further professionalizing the discipline. They coordinated, the fellow at Pembroke was especially responsible, his name was Gustafson, he died a few years ago, but they started having gatherings of the chairmen of the Religious Studies in the sixteen campus system, those that were there and interested. So there were some very useful, entertaining…

Hayes: You would attend those?

Megivern: Yes, I can remember at UNC-Greensboro one meeting especially where we had really a fine exchange of information about…this was a time when curriculum change was taking place, and we had the opportunity to hear from various campuses what was going on, what the curriculum committees were doing and what directions they were taking, not with the idea that everybody had to be the same, but knowing that some articulation does have its place.

If you’re going to take your first two years at Wilmington and then go to Chapel Hill or to Greensboro, it would be good if your interest is in Religious Studies or Philosophy, for that matter, to know how or whether the programs are conjoined or whether you’ll have to have a lot of your credits not accepted because of differences in the program. But that was something that very much depended on those two people. The fellow at Chapel Hill is still there, he started an institute later, his name is Ruel Tyson, so Dr. Tyson and Dr. Gustafson were the, I guess you’d say, the glue. They were the ones that contacted the others.

Hayes: Kept it going.

Megivern: Identified the place and so forth. Unfortunately especially after Tyson left the chair, it kind of died out. I have always, since I came as a result of that kind of experience, had the impression that there was value to be gained on the state-level by having the people in the state institutions or state campuses know one another and know what was going on and that it was beneficial or could be beneficial for one another to support one another. That was really, again, what led to my further involvement with the AAUP.

We, under Dr. Friday, we were able to make the arrangement where you agreed to meet with the state conference, the officers of the state conference, and representatives from other campuses that wanted to come every semester. When President Spangler came in, he continued that. It was, I think, very useful. I don’t think it’s continued under President Broad, but I think a lot of things had changed by then.

One of the things that had changed here of course was the coming of Dr. Leutze and I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the AAUP’s role when the other candidate…

Hayes: I’d like to get your perspective on that because I have talked to some people who don’t remember all the … they’ve actually said Dr. Jim Megivern, I don’t remember as much of the details as he probably will. But I did get Dr. Dodson’s perspective. That was really fascinating. What was the story behind that just for the potential viewer that didn't watch Dr. Dodson’s tape? What was the background?

Megivern: Again I would also be hazy on details these twelve-years since. I wrote it up in one of the last issues that I edited of the AAUP’s newsletter and I think that would still be where I would go to recall what I had perceived, at any rate. There really were some…there were rumors involved and it was difficult to know what rumors had substance and which ones didn't. There always has been at least one conspiratorial view that President Spangler wanted Dr. Leutze to get the job from the start, but there’s no way in the world you’re going to find out whether that’s so other than by asking them, I’d have to say.

Hayes: I guess the issue originally was that there was a committee and there was faculty representation with two faculty members?

Megivern: Right, Jack Levy and Carol Fink.

Hayes: She is no longer here. I think she went on to Ohio State. And if I understand it correctly, they had broken down the pool down to about three people and somehow because Jack and Carol were the only faculty members, they were outvoted, but they selected three people and Dr. Leutze wasn’t one of them. And they really felt Dr. Leutze should be included and that, furthermore, one other particular person probably shouldn’t be included. Is that correct?

Megivern: You should have asked me to do my homework. Wasn’t there a third person, a faculty person on the committee? I think part of what subsequently happened, what outraged one of the faculty was that somebody on the Board of Trustees on that committee made some remark about the bias of the faculty members, the insinuation of their being Jewish. It seems to me it was the third member, who was Mormon.

Hayes: It was the Board of Trustees that seemed to have an unusually weighted decision, weighted toward them about the chancellor of university, which was a little flip-flop from what other universities do.

Megivern: At the time here we had no senate, so there was no other mechanism for faculty to get together to share their concerns. So it was the AAUP that called the meetings. I can remember we had a couple of them, one was in the cafeteria and one was in a classroom, S&B Building on Sunday night. I think Jack Levy came to that one after having been at one of the committee meetings.

At any rate, the rumor circulated that this encyclopedia salesman was the frontrunner or was going to be the choice and there were some real questions about his academic credentials. That’s really what stirred the forces of the faculty. I guess I’ve never seen them that much involved in any particular activity.

Hayes: Do you think that was also because of the size? Can you imagine something like that unifying the faculty right now because we’re so big?

Megivern: It’s a far different situation, a far different kind of institution. I don’t know. I’ve been on the periphery now for at least four or five years. With the way that it has grown and the compartmentalization, I guess you’d say, I don’t know. On the other hand, I personally think that Dr. Leutze has done marvelous for this place. All you have to do is step out of the library and look north, no east, to remember the parking lot that was there and the expanse. Some of those things certainly have been marvelous.

Hayes: There was a parking lot on the east side of the library when that was the back of the library. Then this issue that the AAUP got involved in, was it a member of the Board of Trustees that was on the committee who made some kind of comment…

Megivern: It was reported in the Star News as well.

Hayes: Because it was on the record and he said, I guess when the three professors voiced their opinion, he said something…

Megivern: Yes, derogatory.

Hayes: About Jewish people even though one person was Mormon. Then there was actually, you guys had a meeting, and was there a demonstration to get Dr. Leutze back in consideration, was that it?

Megivern: Well he was never out of it as such. What the demonstration was for was the Board of Trustees meeting, which was in the Madeline Suite. There are pictures there of people that, you know, Louis Nance, a widely beloved faculty member in the chemistry department, who died a couple of years ago, he is caught in that photo I think with a picket sign.

Hayes: Forever remembered in that way.

Megivern: Yes, it really was an unusual event and the Board of Trustees, of course, had never had anything like this before. In fact, there was previous, I don’t know the years now, but there was no faculty representation on the Board of Trustees and there was no student representation in those early years. So it was certainly a part of the growth process and I think was healthy and we got the support of at least the publicity in the local media. I think that was all to the good.

There are times and decisions that cannot simply be made openly in a totally democratic fashion especially the personnel decisions. On the other hand, to manipulate without letting the people who will be most affected by it know what’s going on, that’s the worst part. That’s what makes the rumors fly. Things probably weren’t half as dangerous. Things weren’t as bad as they might have seemed to a lot of people and that’s part of the fallout of concealing everything, having secret meetings and not letting anybody know what’s going on.

Hayes: Right, there has to be some kind of system.

Megivern: But there was a contrast, at that point, for what we had come to expect from the general administration, certainly under Dr. Friday with his openness and willingness to see anybody and talk to anybody to discuss pros and cons. People ask me how I feel about the fact that there’s no presence of the AAUP, at present. The positive side of that is there is not the kind of need that there was since you have now the systemic, you have a faculty senate and you have a faculty assembly so that UNCW has been involved in the assembly, I think, quite effectively.

Hayes: That’s the UNC’s system-wide representation of professors.

Megivern: Which Dr. Friday began.

Hayes: Oh, when he was here?

Megivern: No, no, in Chapel Hill.

Hayes: When he was president of the system. And currently there’s the president of the…the English professor who right now has a role in the assembly, Dick Veit. What is his role now?

Megivern: He’s the chair.

Hayes: I think it’s only the second time or so that UNCW has …

Megivern: First time I guess was Dr. Betty Jo Welch. The artwork downstairs that was acquired, I’m not sure, in her memory. We were across the hall from one another in Bear Hall my first semester because the two of us were the only ones that weren’t in the business school because that was what Bear Hall was at the time. They were the only offices left.

Hayes: What department was she?

Megivern: Communications, I guess, at that time, it was called Speech, Drama, Communications, was all one and they broke subsequently. The have a circuitous history, I think, as far as the arts are concerned. But I think she was the first one elected to the faculty assembly from UNCW if I’m not mistaken. You can always look back in the AAUP’s newsletter.

Hayes: I already made a note of that one issue that I’ll have to read and remember when students have questions about things, it’s not like the catalogue in the library where everything is catalogued.

Hayes: Good afternoon. Today is Tuesday, July 23, 2002. We’re in the conference room of Randall Library. We are continuing with an interview started way back December 13, 2001 on this tape. It took a while for various reasons to reschedule. Glad to have you back again, Dr. Megivern.

Megivern: Nice to be back.

Hayes: Before we took a break, we talked some about your history before you came to UNCW and your education, your previous jobs, and your work at UNCW. We learned about your work in the UNCW chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Now you are retired, you’re fully retired, right?

Megivern: For over a year now, thirteen months.

Hayes: You’ve remained active in the community whenever possible. Can you tell us about some of the things you’ve done over the years, in the community, that have meant a lot to you? I don’t know where you’d like to start, but I’d be interested in hearing about your work with the Wilmington 10 and/or your work on the 1898 Commission.

Megivern: Well I was involved with the program, that I think I probably mentioned, for four years, in the South Bronx, before I came to Wilmington, right before I came, and it was training of paraprofessionals, in the Bronx, who were, in fact, almost all black women, a few Puerto Rican housewives, who were selected in order to help make the connection between the students who were predominantly black and Puerto Rican and the teachers who were predominantly Jewish, Italian, and Irish in the New York City school system.

The paraprofessional program was meant to bring in adults that the kids could relate to, at least theoretically, better culturally, and so forth. Where there were good teachers, they were able to use the paraprofessionals very usefully, but it was a dead-end for the paraprofessionals, especially for the more talented ones who could, themselves, by talent, become teachers. So our program was funded by HEW to try to help them get into Bronx Community College and prepare for the best to go on and become teachers themselves.

That was, I guess you’d say, my introduction to the social problems of race relations. That was in New York City. Ironically one of the women in that program was from Wilmington. She was a black woman who was thrilled when she heard that I was going to Wilmington. I actually visited her family once the first time I came down. That meant, from the start of my time here, I had reason to be especially sensitive toand aware of the racial or the race relations problem.

Already I knew just from reading the newspapers about the 1971 incidents of the Wilmington 10 and it had become, as you may recall, a political football that was used by the Soviet Union even. When we were in Europe in 1977, I remember seeing a paper in Germany that talked about the political prisoners of the Wilmington 10, political prisoners of the United States, which ought not to be criticizing the Soviets for their political prisoners.

It was an internationally watched case and it was interesting, when I arrived, there was talk about trying to get a new trial and that didn't happen. It didn't happen period, but the efforts to do that throughout 1975 and 1976, and, in 1976, it was agreed that they wouldn’t give a new trial, but there would be a post-conviction hearing, a change of venue. It would be held in Burgaw. That just happened to coincide with the time when the editor of the Star-News had approached me about doing a weekly article on the world of religion, which I did for eight years, from ’77 to ’85.

One of the first ones that I did in that was, I went because it was possible between the regular school year and the summer session, that was when it was held in Burgaw. I was able to sit in on the post-conviction hearing, and I really got an earful. The Wilmington 10 were not allowed to be there themselves, but their mothers were there and that was itself an interesting, pathetic dimension to see what chaos and grief the whole thing had caused in local families.

I got to know some of them, especially Mrs. Wright, Joe Wright’s mother, and Dolores Moore, Wayne Moore’s mother. It was as a result of that, that when possible, we would try to promote programs that would help. On campus the effort was being made also, as you may remember, Ralph Parker was the man who was in charge of minority affairs and he did a lot of good work for a lot of years. So I tried to be supportive of anything that Ralph sponsored that might help in this regard.

So when the prospect, after Dr. Leutze came, the prospect of the university getting involved, in some way, to attempt to meet some of the priority needs of the black community, it was out of that initiative that the talk of the North Fourth Street grocery was one of the things that came out as high on the list. That was when Bolton Anthony was brought in and he brought in Isaiah Madison. This was done in 1996 where the movement was started to do something to try to address and improve race relations in the city in preparation for the Centennial of 1898.

It went through several incarnations, but that’s how it began. Now the irony of it was that I was much more involved, see I was out of the chair by then, so I was much more involved in ’96 and ’97 until, at the end of ’97, my book on the death penalty came out. So, the publication of the book, in retrospect, I have to see as a real turning point in the direction of my activities. I certainly didn't lose any interest in the local race relations scene.

In fact, I was subsequently asked to serve as co-chair with Bertha Todd, which I did for the actual Centennial. So, the book had an impact, a reach that was far beyond anything I had anticipated. It turned quickly into invitations to speak all the way from conferences in Los Angeles to the University of New Hampshire. That was really an interesting, I guess you could say, finale, as far as my latter days, before going into the phased retirement program.

I guess people may have wondered about seeing me much more involved earlier and not being as visible in the latter part because I had gone on to accept all the invitations that were coming in concerning the death penalty.

Hayes: One can’t say that it’s not related. It certainly is, especially in the South or in states that have the death penalty.

Megivern: Right, very, very true. I did some writing in that regard also. I think that the problems associated with the prison system and especially death row in Raleigh, I would not have been able to see the extent of the racism in the system if it had not been for the book and some of the doors that that opened. I was invited or asked to meet with one of the convicts who was scheduled to be executed the next week. That’s something that never would have come along in earlier times. There would have been no reason for it.

It was the social worker who wanted to know if I wanted to talk to him because he was one of those who was a volunteer. He wanted to be executed because he had had a religious conversion in prison and was convinced that the monster that he used to be deserved to be executed. When she called, to ask if I would talk to him and to see if he wanted to talk to me, I made it clear I certainly have no intention whatsoever of trying to dissuade him from anything or change his mind or challenge him or anything.

If he has questions that he would like to ask me, that would be fine. As it turned out, we had a conversation for some forty-five minutes, or so. It was very friendly and he had a big smile. We ended, he said, “You know the difference between you and me is you don’t believe in the death penalty and I do.” I said, “You’re right on that.” When we parted, I told him that I would be outside the gate of central prison the following Friday at two in the morning when he was executed with the People of Faith against the Death Penalty holding the vigil protesting the execution. He thanked me for that and we parted.

So these are developments I guess that were totally serendipitous. I had not foreseen anything like this. You know, it was just my curiosity after having been asked to testify in that court trial in 1979.

Hayes: Which court trial?

Megivern: I got a call from a young woman who was the public defender in the case of a black man who had been arrested for the murder of a woman in Fayetteville and they had a change of venue because of bad publicity in Fayetteville. It was held here in the summer of 1979. I got the call out of the blue, one day, from the public defender wanting to know if anybody, I was the only one in the department for the summer school at the time, if anybody would be willing to address the jury to explain that the Bible does not require that every murderer be executed.

I had no previous interest really. I did some homework. I thought it ought to be easy enough to point out that if you’re going to go by the Bible, the first murderer is not only not executed, but God prohibits his execution in Cain and something is going on there before the law codes of the later kingdom of Israel provide for a death penalty. I was just pointing out that you can argue either way with Biblical material. There’s ambivalence at least, if not ambiguity.

As it turned out, I couldn't get rid of the problems. I just was puzzled in doing my own homework as to how on earth the Christian church had allowed itself to get so entangled in support of the death penalty for so many centuries. I happened to know, as well, that it was precisely at that time that many institutionally were turning around. It was 1978 that Pope John Paul II was elected and he’s the first Roman pontiff in history to speak out so strongly against the death penalty.

Even if it was only curiosity, you’d have to ask the question, why? What is it that’s changed and what is the significance of the changes and why now? So there were questions that I couldn't put aside, so it kind of became a hobby. Every time I had the opportunity to be in the Triangle for AAUP or anything else, I’d head for Duke Divinity School Library and gathered all this material over the course, as it turned out, 18 years between the call that led me to the courtroom and the publication of the book.

None of that was planned from the start. It was as it built up that I would occasionally run into a friend at the annual conventions of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, who was the editor of Paulist Press, and I remember talking to him one day about all this material that I had gathered. This would have been in the mid-80s. He said, “Send me a manuscript.” So I had the offer early, see unlike many others who look for publishers, every time I saw this guy subsequently at conventions, he’d say, “Jim, where’s the manuscript?” (laughter).

Hayes: I’d like to continue talking about this on the next tape. We’re about to run out of time. We’re continuing with Dr. Megivern talking about the emergence of his scholarly interests in the death penalty, which gave way to the publication of a book in 1997. But, throughout the 80s, you had already accumulated a lot of research. Were you publishing articles at the time?

Megivern: I delivered a couple of papers. I think my first one was as early as 1980 and that was on some of the Biblical material. Then there was a period where I just continued my research on it and published somewhere around ’86 or ’87. I remember for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, which would have been 1987, I did an article on the guillotine. It was initially a talk given on campus and then it was published in Criminal Justice Ethics.

A few things like that, I happened to have the opportunity to put some of the material together for articles. Gradually the book was forming. Basically as chronology, it was trying to go from the early Christianity to contemporary. In western Christianity, I was very much aware that there was a similar history, in some ages worse, in eastern Orthodox Christianity especially Justinian in the 6th century.

I actually took that in account and indicated that I was not attempting to be exhaustive, but just following western Christiandom. Because of the role that I saw emerging and the importance of the role of the papacy for the western church, it was clearly there that once you had the imperial papacy, from the 11th century on, that was when the death penalty became an absolutely crucial instrument of the political policies and practices. Once it’s happening at the center of the Church of Rome, there is not going to be any likelihood of its being criticized other than by outsiders.

So, it’s a very curious history as to what happened there which makes the turnaround, the contemporary turnaround, all the more remarkable. That this unusual pope, at present, who has blind spots and shortcomings undoubtedly, but on this issue, it is remarkable. Since the assassination attempt at St. Peter’s Square in 1981, it’s from there…see the first three years of his papacy, I don’t think there was anything that indicated this. I may be wrong on that, but I don’t recall anything.

But the first thing he does after he gets out of the hospital after the assassination attempt is to go to the prison to meet with and forgive his would-be assassin. If there’s any way in which one can get a message across, it’s by the actions. Don’t tell me about it. Let me see what you’re doing. I think that’s what gave him credibility. My suspicion is that the earlier popes of the 20th century would have been much opposed to it as well, but because of the history didn't know what to do about it.

Once he had made the break, say, well, this is something, for whatever reasons, got into the practice of the past, but it is not something that is compatible with contemporary human rights, and that’s where his own strength, from his experience in Poland seeing the human rights of people, that the other contemporary political philosophy and theology, that if you do not highlight the dignity of the human person, then there’s no hope for any kind of a humane state.

So there’s some very interesting implications in it, but this all evolved you know with my continued reading on it and watching the documents was fascinating and it continues to be. As you know, there are still American Catholics who don’t want to hear about it or they don’t understand why there has been a change and think this is a violation of tradition.

My response is that some traditions ought to be violated or need to be violated, should never have become traditions in the first place. I guess between the death penalty and race relations, they have taken a good bit of my interest in the latter years.

Hayes: Well what was involved with serving as co-chair of the 1898 Commission? How many years did that take?

Megivern: I guess my own chairmanship was probably just three-years. There are factors that came into that, too. When I was first asked, this would have been 1998, ’97 I guess, it was because of seeing the way in which my time was being taken, and very often out of town, that I recognized that I would have to miss meetings and occasions. So I wasn’t looking for the position.

There were a couple of people in the black community, and I think Dr. Leutze had something to do with this too, that they were in conversation and it’s all part of that story of the ambiguous position of Bolton Anthony that two women in the black community, who were much involved, asked Dr. Leutze if I would be available, if I could be persuaded to be in on it. He actually called me from his cell phone on his way to Chapel Hill one day about it.

I didn't know for sure what it was going to involve. I figured just because I may have to miss things, it wouldn’t be reason enough to turn it down. I did always have…I was disappointed that I couldn't be at all of the things that were held.

Hayes: Is that because you were speaking?

Megivern: Yes, I was speaking.

Hayes: I’d like to hear more about that, too, after this.

Megivern: They seemed to come in bunches so the chances of missing at least some of the meetings of that particular time were high.

Hayes: Yes, they all clustered around the same months of the year. So you did your best and there were a good number of meetings and activities throughout the year, in 1997, too.

Megivern: Yes. They were I think very useful. I suppose the historians are going to find or point out some of the shortcomings. I think the symposium that was held on campus was--that Mel McLaurin was much involved in planning--a real highlight because it brought so many together who knew what they were talking about and whose values were in the right place. So a good book came out of it.

How much impact it had on the community as such is difficult to measure because, as you know, the campus is only one element of the community. I’m sure there are parts of the community, especially the black community, that probably never set foot on campus. So it may have been more helpful or useful if we’d been able to stage more programs elsewhere.

On the other hand, we’re grateful that the campus was here to serve the function, which it did. I think what’s happening has happened subsequently, with the town hall with the community action group, is, in some ways, an outgrowth of that. Of course, Herbert Harris has had very much to do with that, but nonetheless I think that the 1898 events helped open things up and I really hope that that continues because currently I don’t know of any place else in the community where you can turn out an integrated audience the way that happens at town hall. That’s my opinion, my impression of it. I hope they do much more with it.

Hayes: That would be good. As co-chair, did you work very closely with Bertha Todd?

Megivern: Yes, Bertha was the other co-chair and she did much more. There’s no question about it. The woman has great skills as well as having the trust of both the black and white community and, I think, if the truth were told about people who changed their minds and after initially resisting, decided to contribute in one way or another, it’s probably more due to Bertha than any other individual. This was a gift of hers that I gather she has exercised throughout her career.

It was very interesting to be involved with her and seeing the frustrations which she had to deal with within the black community, knowing that there was a segment of the black community that was no more interested in integration than the segment of the white community that was opposed to integration, now for different reasons, presumably.

It was at least always hopeful when you could see people, who previously would have had little to do with one another across racial lines, willing to join in and collaborate to some degree and financially. That’s still going on, of course, with the memorial underway. Although it has been strangely complicated by Tom Wright, which, again, I don’t know what the dynamics are there.

Tom certainly knew that Luther Jordan was dying and that he was the senior legislature in the black community. What other factors entered into opposition [to the memorial?]…

Hayes: Was he opposed to it?

Megivern: Yes.

Hayes: Did he take Luther’s place?

Megivern: No, no, he’s in the state house and he’s Joe Wright’s brother. Joe was one of the Wilmington 10 who died and I think he’s a good man. But I don’t know what the politics of this are. This was land that was donated by the Department of Transportation and which Laura Padgett had really done some good work in making the arrangements for. It didn't seem like there was any reason for anybody to oppose it. They were kind of blind-sighted when Tom first made known that he was opposed to it.

That’s another story that I have not been directly involved in, so I don’t know how it will turn out.

Hayes: I would like to interview Bertha Todd. I have not spoken with her yet. I’d like to get some insights about all her years here in Wilmington. That would be wonderful. You said you were quite surprised when your book came out in 1997, but almost right away, there was a big demand for you to speak about your book. What kind of requests were you getting? Was it from universities or media or both?

Megivern: Yes, both. The Paulist Press editors put it in the hands of a public relations person in Manhattan as it was coming out in prepublication. Part of what was arranged, I was interviewed on one Washington television station, but there were also problems, and this is a whole side of the business that I knew nothing about, they would have liked to have had reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Initially, they had been given reason to believe that that could be arranged. There are some aspects of it, especially the fact that it was published by a Catholic press, that limited. I was put in touch with Tom, I’m going to blank on his name, a journalist, a prizewinning journalist with the New York Times.

Hayes: Tom Friedman?

Megivern: No, no, earlier than that. At any rate, the prospects for reviews were disappointing at first. The Catholic Press Association, at its spring meeting, must have been March or April, I’m not sure when they meet, at that meeting, it won first place in the category of Theology. The result there was that it got additional publicity that it otherwise would not have.

Part of what we have in the current structure of Catholic dioceses is offices of Peace and Justice. That was where many of the invitations came from. That first conference that I spoke at, in Los Angeles at the archdioceses there, was, I guess, that was the first of something like maybe eight or nine over the next two years. In fact, I had to cancel or postpone for the Dioceses of St. Augustine in Florida when my eye surgery became necessary. I just rescheduled.

The person in charge wouldn’t let me off the hook. They were very sympathetic and postponed from, I was supposed to be in May, and it was postponed to September or October. That’s where these offices of Peace and Justice are expected to, or their purpose is, to bring contemporary issues, social issues, to the awareness of the laity and the clergy as well. I’ve spoken at a couple of clergy conferences, likewise. It is something that is controversial still, that…

Hayes: In the church?

Megivern: Yes, and especially in the more traditional. If there’s no opportunity to provide some historical perspective, and I think people can get into shouting matches on it, whereas, I think the strength and what made the book unusual was the historical material. I think you could safely say that simply by reviewing the historical material, any thoughtful person would have to have severe questions, heavy questions, about what happened.

I never heard anything else but support for it. It’s part of the woodwork. I’ve used that analogy of a privileged pedestal, that from the 11th century, it was placed on this privileged pedestal, which meant you don’t criticize that. You don’t ask questions about that. That’s just part of the way things are.

Even in the famous catechism, the Roman Catechism of 1566, I was very curious to see, to go back to that and find out here in the heart of the Reformation, Luther was dead by this time by a few years, but here I went to see what the rationale would be for the death penalty in that popular instruction manual mandated by the council and it starts off with “Thou shalt not kill except…” The two big exceptions it starts off with are just war and capital punishment. No explanation. No effort to justify it. It was just, “Oh everybody knows that.”

You know, we have scaffolds in every city, every town, every crossroads around here. That’s the way bad people are gotten rid of. Wow, it didn't used to be that way, before the 11th century.

Hayes: So you historicized it and put it into context.

Megivern: Yes, something really did happen and even having happened in the 11th century, it did not become church law until the 12th century. What everybody knows is the treatment by the theologians of the 13th century. These poor guys were not at liberty to discuss it as a free air, open issue. It is now part of church law. Okay, are you in or out, that’s the kind of option they are confronted with.

I think it’s much more complicated than saying, or it’s easier to say, it’s always been that way, right from the start, and some of the good theologians are still contending that it’s a unanimous tradition.

Hayes: Unbroken, but it has been broken.

Megivern: Yes, very much so, especially the unquestioning justification of it for virtually anything, even poaching in the royal forest. You know, you’re the poor guy that can’t feed his family and shoots an arrow at a rabbit and gets caught in the king’s forest and gets strung up. Well, aren’t you going to ask any questions about the circumstances under which it might be permissible to kill, or can you just do it for anything? So it’s a peculiar institution to say the least.

The most interesting climax, I guess, of these was last year when I was invited to be part of the symposium put on by Catholic University, by the Law School and the School of Theology in collaboration, first time ever, I think. Two of the people that were on the program, one of them was Cardinal Dulles, Avery Dulles, were still making the statement that this is the unbroken tradition, it’s common teaching, universal consensus.

What I tried to do, in that paper, was to suggest and outline that there are five different periods that are identifiable in the history of the Christian church, the western Christian church, and that the fifth period is the one we’re in now, which is reversing what happened in the previous three and recovering some of the priorities that were there before the church became the church of the empire. If you’re part of the empire and have the power, power corrupts.

Hayes: Different priorities.

Megivern: Yes, that was exactly the issue.

Hayes: That’s very interesting.

Megivern: It was a very interesting experience because they had more scholars involved in it and you could see that the trend was away from the position of the past even though it’s a conservative institution. The fact that the theology department was collaborating with the lawyers, while they’re conservative lawyers too, I think just because of the aberrations of our own system, there are many more lawyers that are aware of the corruption of the system.

The other event that I was involved in that stands out, in retrospect also, was when I was invited to be part of a panel at the New York Bar Association and the Paulists were Pat Robertson and Bianca Jagger.

Hayes: Really? And Dr. Megivern (laughter).

Megivern: Bianca has called me at least five or six times since then to ask me to sign on for letters of support … that she’s become involved in trying to show that they are innocent people or that they’re unjustly given so severe a penalty. She was between me and Robertson (laughter).

Hayes: Do you look over her cases and sign them?

Megivern: Oh yes, yes, she knew what my objection to it was and knew that I would be, if anything, I’m an abolitionist. You can make the case, as I think the Pope did in his ’95 encyclical, that in extreme circumstances, then it might be justifiable, but he goes on to say it’s almost nonexistent. Well, I don’t need to keep that gap or that slit open in the door. I don’t think there’s any justified execution once you accept the principle of the dignity of the human person, certainly not from a religious viewpoint.

But Pat Robertson, at that point, had, he was invited because of the Carla Faye Tucker execution in Texas, which he and Jerry Falwell had pleaded for the commutation of the sentence because she had become a Born-Again-Christian in prison and spent the last six years of her life, in prison, ministering to others. Unless one wanted to say well, she’s phony from the beginning, it was a very good argument, but the obvious shortcoming of it was, as one of his colleagues pointed out in a fascinating exchange between them, said how about if she had become a pious Muslim. I don’t think Robertson would have gone to bat for her (laughter).

Because he saw the system misfire, in his opinion, and his defense of it was she’s a different woman than the one who committed the crime, admittedly heinous crime. Well what kind of judgment is that – she’s a different woman, who doesn’t deserve to die, because she happens to have joined his particular brand of Christianity.

He was asked in another meeting, that I was at, where he was on the panel, if he would be in favor of a moratorium in view of the execution of Carla Faye and he said, “Yes.” So at least he came that far to say something is wrong with the system if it can’t recognize that some people, no matter what they have done, still ought not to be executed.

Hayes: Has he changed then? Has he become more against the death penalty?

Megivern: Yes, yes, but especially for moratorium to fix the system. The greater change was that Christianity Today, you know the journal, the weekly journal, is the conservative wing, the evangelical wing, and the editors went through a more radical conversion than Robertson did on it. They followed this very closely and when they saw that the system had no way or no interest in saving the life of Carla Faye Tucker, said this has outlived its usefulness, at least.

They didn't deny what they previously maintained as far as Biblical justification or Biblical support, but the argument was well in our society given the circumstances of the way that it’s functioning, and especially with innocent people being, you know, we’ve had over a hundred innocent people that have had their cases overturned before they were executed, so we don’t know how many had their cases not overturned that should have been overturned before they were executed. So the argument for moratorium, I think, have become much more generally recognized. Christianity Today changed their editorial position to the chagrin of some of their more conservative readers.

Hayes: Very interesting. So it might be not long before we see more changes on the public side, perhaps already starting. I know you spoke some in Wilmington when they executed Timothy McVeigh.

Megivern: And I think the moratorium movement, which Sister Helen Prejean was already chairing when she was here to speak, they gathered over two million signatures and presented them to the UN. That was for the millennium in 2000. If anything, I think the misfiring of the system, since then, with the moratorium in Illinois by Governor George Ryan and the governor of Maryland just two months ago.

So the two governors, Republican, is the Maryland governor Republican? – I’m not sure of that, but certainly Ryan is conservative Republican--couldn't justify a system where they had thirteen cases overturned of people on death row during the same period in which they had executed twelve. They said that’s not an acceptable ratio. We have more innocent people that we have executed people.

Hayes: I can see that. Well, if I may change the subject a good deal, we have just gotten news on Friday that there will be a new chancellor search because Dr. Leutze will be retiring. You were around when there was a search for a chancellor back in 1990. What are your remembrances of that time?

Megivern: Well, to get the clearest recollection, you’d have to read my final assessment or narrative of it in the AAUP newsletter. I think it was probably the last issue that I edited. I think a lot of the story, as far as faculty involvement, was not clearly told in the press, nor did they have reason to want to. Just to appreciate why it was the one and only time that I’ve been around here where the faculty were sufficiently riled to picket the Board of Trustees because of the rumor that they were going to go with one of three finalists and the one being a nonacademic. They referred to him as the “encyclopedia salesman.”

There are those who still think that there is more to the story that that may have been somebody started that in order to foster more support for Dr. Leutze. If they did, I say more power to them (laughter) because he had the credentials and the approach and the background and all the rest, which made much more sense for this institution. We didn't know that much about him, but what we did know was positive. What we did know about the other guy was negative.

Admittedly, there were other things, statements, that were made by a couple of the members of the Board of Trustees. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten and blissfully forgotten some of the remarks that were made by members of the Board of Trustees about the three faculty members. You know, they were dismissed by one of them because of the Jewish element. Well, one of them anyway was a Mormon.

Hayes: There were three members of the committee that were faculty members and part of their concerns were that the faculty weren’t included in the committee as much as the board. Wasn’t there an issue that Dr. Leutze may not have been selected as one of the three finalists? Was there some speculation that some of the board didn't want Dr. Leutze selected?

Megivern: I may be mis-recalling too, but I think it was more that it had been rumored that they were in favor of this other guy. I don’t know of anybody that was opposed to Dr. Leutze personally as such.

Hayes: But they were in favor of this other guy.

Megivern: Yes, for whatever reasons.

Hayes: The faculty representatives on the committee said or voiced concerns and somebody dismissed them as a Jewish conspiracy?

Megivern: Again these were reports. There was, at the time, no forum on campus where the faculty in any broader sense was involved and that’s why we invoked the AAUP, which admittedly has not been a consistently active organization on campus, which is often the case. When it’s active, it’s especially active when things are not going well. It’s a crisis situation that people want to have some opportunity to influence the situation.

That was the role that was played. We just let it be known that interested faculty members were going to gather, I think it was a Sunday evening, to talk about it. At least two, I think two faculty members on the board came to the meeting to hear their colleagues. That would be the gist of the summary article that I wrote afterwards of what had transpired and why the outcome was, we thought, felicitous and what some of the objections to the process were. I really am hazy on it now.

Hayes: Sure, I understand. We have some of those files.

Megivern: Yes, look at that last one. The decision was already made and I guess Dr. Leutze was already on campus when that issue finally came out. I think people were generally pleased.

Hayes: During the time you were here, that’s the only time you remember faculty demonstrating about anything?

Megivern: Yes, and the irony of it was that the picture in the newspaper with the picket signs as they went up to Madeline Hall, which is where they were meeting. The photographer was out there and got such radical people as Lewis Nance, I don’t know. You didn't know him, did you? He died subsequently. Lewis Nance, in the Chemistry Department, was the sweetest, gentlest person (laughter), saying we want someone who knows what academia is all about. There were a few other people who would never have been identified as flamethrowers.

Hayes: I interviewed Brooks Dodson and he brought this up. He said he never envisioned himself as the type to picket, but wanted to be there. He remembers it well.

Megivern: It was the time to take a stand.

Hayes: Was the Faculty Senate active or involved at that point?

Megivern: The senate, I guess it had already been formed. The AAUP had played a role in the formation of it or the encouragement of the formation for governance. It certainly was not as clearly defined as it subsequently became. You know, again some of the problem previously was that Dr. Wagoner was not out of higher education. He had been a school principal and then the superintendent of schools and had little previous involvement in higher education.

Maybe that was the best thing for the time, for the transition that had to be made. I think that he allowed a lot of things to happen which were good. I had come from a situation in New York where the administration resisted and wouldn’t even allow or tried to stop the faculty from having an AAUP chapter. So it was in contrast with that that, when I first arrived and asked about AAUP, that there was a chapter that was more or less defunct, but Dick Deas in the Music Department was the president at the time.

I think I probably told you the story that when I went over to see him when I was told he was the president, he wouldn’t let me leave without taking it over (laughter). He didn't want it and wasn’t doing anything with it. Then Thad Dankel, of course, was the other one who was very interested in having a more active participation by the faculty, in government of the institution.

What the senate has become, I think, has only gradually been accomplished. I think it certainly is one of the more positive developments in the growth of the institution, at least the mechanisms are there for those who want to participate.

Hayes: There are certainly some structures that did not exist when you first came. That’s for sure. Did you retire, you started phased retirement in 1998?

Megivern: ’98 because it was three years for full retirement in 2001.

Hayes: Last year was when you started full retirement, but you have been teaching?

Megivern: I came back in the fall of 2001 to teach in the MALS [Master of Arts in Liberal Studies] course, the one graduate course. Then, at the last minute as you may recall, with the influx of unexpected freshmen, the departments were requested to add additional sections, so I agreed to take a section of Intro to the New Testament.

Hayes: Oh, I did not know that. So you were doing that as well?

Megivern: Yes, and that was six hours of teaching, that was half time. I enjoyed the teaching, but it didn't allow, with all of the other things going on, it didn't allow very much else and that’s why I decided not to teach in the spring and subsequent to that, I decided not to teach this fall. I’m still sharing the office with Dr. McGowan, who is in phased retirement and wasn’t there in the spring. So there was no problem, I wasn’t interfering with anyt

Repository:
UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign