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Temple’s acting president, JoAnne A. Epps, has died after falling ill on stage at university event

JoAnne A. Epps, 72, who had previously led the law school, fell ill at a university event.

JoAnne Epps, pictured as dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, in 2014, has died after collapsing at a university event Tuesday.
JoAnne Epps, pictured as dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, in 2014, has died after collapsing at a university event Tuesday.Read moreMichael Ares / File Photograph

JoAnne A. Epps, Temple University’s acting president with a long distinguished career, died after falling ill on stage Tuesday afternoon during a university event, said Mitchell L. Morgan, chair of the board of trustees.

“I am devastated by this loss,” Morgan said. “She was our light at the end of the tunnel. Temple University will survive it. I’m not sure I will emotionally survive it.”

» READ MORE: JoAnne Epps, named Temple’s acting president, says she can ‘calm waters’

Epps, 72, who became Temple’s leader earlier this year after the resignation of Jason Wingard, was scheduled to speak at an event in memory of historian and author Charles L. Blockson, who was the curator emeritus of the Blockson Afro-American Collection.

Shortly after the event began, Epps — a former Temple law school dean and provost who has worked at the university for nearly four decades — was carried out in the arms of a uniformed officer, after the announcer asked whether there was a doctor in attendance. Her cause of death was not immediately known.

The ceremony was temporarily delayed but then resumed with Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, former faculty senate president, stepping in to read Epps’ remarks.

Morgan said he would hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to figure out next steps for the 30,530-student university. The school recently launched a search for a new president, but that could take the better part of a year. Epps had not intended to be a candidate for that job. She had planned on retiring before the board asked her to take on the interim role.

A vigil is planned at the Bell Tower at noon Wednesday. Flags will be flown at half-staff on the university campus. It will be up to professors how to handle their classes on Wednesday.

Williams-Witherspoon, who had been sitting next to Epps before the Blockson event began, said Epps had been in good spirits and had just come from another meeting. The two were longtime friends, and Epps had told her she had read an article about Philadelphia’s new youth poet laureate and knew Williams-Witherspoon, a performance poet, would be interested.

After leaning forward to pick up some papers, Williams-Witherspoon noticed something seemed to be wrong with Epps. “I said JoAnne, are you OK?” Williams-Witherspoon recalled. “She didn’t respond. Her eyes were open. I touched her hand and said, ‘In the name of Jesus.’”

Epps took a deep breath before an officer came and carried her out, Williams-Witherspoon said. It wouldn’t be until about halfway through the Blockson event that she learned of her friend’s death.

“I loved her,” she said. “She’s been my friend for many years. We’ve been through so much as a university and as a community but we have to honor that she was willing to come back from retirement to keep moving forward, and we have to honor that vision.”

A shaken campus

Epps’ sudden death shook the Temple community to the core.

“We’re all just kind of shocked by this horrible news,” said Jeffrey Doshna, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals. “A lot of us came to know her as a colleague and friend.”

» READ MORE: Temple’s acting president, JoAnne Epps, has thoughts (and concerns) about college sports

Her leadership in recent months has been key, he said.

“She absolutely changed the tone and tenor of things on campus,” he said.

Senior Gianni Quattrocchi, past student body president who was on campus Tuesday afternoon, said many professors were looking visibly upset.

“It’s a very somber day,” he said.

Word of her death quickly spread off campus as well and generated messages of condolence.

Acting president JoAnne Epps dedicated decades of her professional life to the Temple University community — championing women and people of color in the legal profession and inspiring a generation of leaders,” said Joanna McClinton, speaker of the Pennsylvania House. “Today’s news is a tragedy. She will be truly missed by the Temple community and beyond.”

» READ MORE: Temple officially launches the search for its next president

Others spoke of the impact she had on their lives.

Reginald Streater had offers from other law schools, but he wanted to go to Temple because of Epps, who saw something in Streater, a native Philadelphian who experienced homelessness as a child and worked as a waiter and bartender before he attended college.

Something Epps told all first-year law students still sticks with Streater, now a trial lawyer and president of Philadelphia’s school board: “Your job is to make the world a better place,” she said.

Though Epps was physically diminutive, she was a giant to many, Streater said.

“She was our guiding light, our North Star,” said Streater. “She was caring, she loved Temple, she loved the law school. She just gave it her all. For someone to utilize their station in life to affect the lives of so many people, I aspire to do that. Not because it’s the bright shiny thing to do, but because I have an archetype in her.”

Epps had spent nearly 40 years at Temple before being asked in April to step in and lead the school as it reeled from the resignation of a president, a six-week-graduate student worker strike, and the shooting death of an on-duty Temple police officer.

“I am obviously humbled and excited and really looking forward to being able to make a contribution to the university that I so love,” Epps said in an interview in April as she was about to be appointed.

Epps, who lived in Shamong, Burlington County, with her husband, L. Harrison Jay, who worked in community affairs at Temple for decades, said at the time that the board had expected her to “calm the waters,” and in recent months, she had.

“She had an amazing ability to be the calming force in troubled waters and pulled everyone together,” said Ken Kaiser, senior vice president and chief operating officer.

A life of many honors

Epps’ history with Temple stretches way back: Her mother once worked as a secretary for the school and she, herself, at 16, was a cashier at the Temple bookstore. Her academic career includes 31 years at the law school, the last eight as its dean before becoming provost, a position she held until August 2021, when Wingard moved her out as part of a larger shift in top administrators. She remained as a senior adviser to Wingard and on the law school faculty, and last semester she taught a course at the law school in gender equity and the law.

A native of Cheltenham Township, Epps received her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973. She’s a Yale Law School graduate, who became deputy city attorney in Los Angeles in 1976 and in 1980 returned to Philadelphia to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She began at Temple law in 1985 and was named dean in 2008.

She presided over the law school as enrollment nationally declined. During her leadership, the school moved into the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report rankings, started a center for compliance and ethics, and created the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice.

Among her honors, she was recognized three times as one of the 100 most influential Black lawyers in the country by Lawyers of Color Magazine.

She has served multiple roles in the community. Then-Mayor Michael Nutter appointed her as chair of a Police Oversight Board responsible for making sure Philadelphia implemented recommendations of a Justice Department report critical of officers’ use of lethal force. She also served on the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, and held roles on the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and the Women’s Nonprofit Leadership, which has advocated for more women on university and hospital boards.

Growing up in the 1960s, Epps never imagined how her life would unfold, she said in 2016 Inquirer interview.

Her career aspirations were set: She said she wanted to become a legal secretary, like the fictional character Della Street on her favorite show, Perry Mason.

She almost left Trinity after her sophomore year, she said, because she wasn’t getting the typing and shorthand skills she needed to land that job.

Then a Trinity dean suggested she become a lawyer, something she had never considered.

“I had never met a lawyer, a man or a woman, white or Black,” she said. “I reversed course. I said that’s not a bad idea.”

Colleagues who were close to her spoke of her outsized impact on the university at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“She’s been an extraordinary leader,” said Gregory N. Mandel, Temple’s provost. “She’s been a mentor for me and many others. She’s been a close confidante.

“We know that JoAnne passed away doing something that she loved with her family there and friends and our Temple community. President Epps represented the best part of the Temple community.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro said he believed that the North Philadelphia and Temple communities will overcome the tragedy, even after such a difficult prior year.

“They are tough and resilient, and I know they will come together and lift each other up in this devastating time,” Shapiro said.

Staff photographer Tom Gralish and staff writers Kristen A Graham and Gillian McGoldrick contributed to this article.