Davidson bids a fond farewell to three faculty innovators who leave lasting impressions.
By Bill Giduz
The end of the school year marked the conclusion of the professorial careers of three faculty members. David Brown, visiting associate professor of chemistry, Ray Sprague, professor of music and choral director, and Job Thomas, professor of history and director of the South Asian Studies program, tallied a total of 56 years of service to Davidson students.
Brown came to Davidson to teach chemistry on a one-year contract in 1997. After his first year he got another one-year contract. Then he got one for a couple more years. Then he got a couple of four-year contracts, until it all added up to teaching at Davidson for 15 years! In recognition of his distinguished service on a continually temporary basis, the Board of Trustees took the unusual step of awarding this visiting associate faculty member the status of associate professor emeritus upon his retirement.
Brown brought to Davidson valuable experience and contacts from a decade’s work in the world of industrial organic chemistry. During his first two years at Davidson he received grants from his former employer, Hoechst Celanese, which provided funding for five student researchers to work on improving plastic beverage bottles. The team did, indeed, discover a material that allowed much less carbonation to escape through the vessel walls, and it’s being used commercially to this day in the manufacture of millions of bottles.
At various points in his career, Brown also worked on light-sensitive polymers as coatings on silicon wafers for computer chips, surfactants for personal care products such as shampoos, and lubricants for metals and fibers. His latest project has been development of a cigarette filter that will degrade into environmentally friendly byproducts when wet by rain, so that butts vanish within a month or so.
An academically challenging teacher, he was also appreciated for helping students learn. His success at that was recognized with the 2005 Omicron Delta Kappa Teaching Award and the 2009 Student Government Association Advisor Award.
Ray Sprague came to Davidson in 1999—a pivotal time for the music program—after having taught for more than 20 years at other institutions. His first three years at Davidson were spent in Cunningham Fine Arts Building. But the college renovated the former College Union building for the music program, and Sprague had the pleasant opportunity of offering advice about its design, and then teaching in the new Sloan Music Center for his final few years at Davidson.
In 2007 he engineered the expansion of the Concert Choir to tackle large-scale classical pieces. The group now provides students the opportunity to perform with an orchestra, and because it is made up of almost 100 singers, it also includes talented faculty and community members.
The Concert Choir has filled the hall since that time with 10 of the grandest classical choral pieces of all time, beginning with Handel’s “Messiah.” They have also performed Brahm’s “Requiem,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” Vaughan Williams “Dona Nobis Pacem,” Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” and Haydn’s “Creation.”
“It’s been my responsibility and delight to show the singers something they haven’t seen before,” he said. “We could sing the Messiah every year, and the audience and musicians would enjoy it. But I’m foremost a teacher, and have sought to give them new and challenging musical experiences.”
Davidson got a “two-fer” in hiring Sprague because his spouse, Kathie Turner, had a doctoral degree in communications studies, and became founding professor of the college’s communications studies program. Turner also shares her husband’s love of singing, and performs with the Concert Choir. The two have also collaborated on presentations at academic conferences. One concerned the use of popular music in the television show “Miami Vice,” and another discussed the use of classical music in television advertisements.
Though he retires as an eminent scholar of the art of India, Job Thomas’s legacy at Davidson will be most vividly recognized as the broadened world view of members of the college family who have traveled to his native land of India.
In 1979 he earned his doctorate, and when Davidson offered him a position as a tenure-track faculty member in the history department and director of the South Asian Studies Program, he accepted. Thomas went right to work creating the Semester in India program, and in 1981 took the first group of students abroad. Since then the program has accommodated more than 250 students and 60 faculty and staff members. His association with first class Indian scholars and tour guides ensures students have an academically rich and personally comfortable experience. But Thomas defers the credit, and claims that the success of the program is based on the eagerness with which students embrace India’s culture. He said, “I have decided there is nothing quite as idealistic and energetic as American youth abroad. The intellectual curiosity, inner strength, physical endurance, resiliency, and the ability of these students to adjust quickly to strange environments must be seen to be believed.”
His expertise in Indian art and architecture are so respected that he was invited to deliver the 2005 Ananda Coomaraswamy Lecture in Delhi—the country’s highest recognition in the field of arts. He has also written a book about bronze temple statues, and a seminal work last year on the 2,000-year history of painting in his home state of Tamil Nadu. He’s now writing a third book about Mahatma Gandhi, a subject he has taught regularly in seminars.
Thomas’s dedication and leadership were recognized with the 2007 Thomas Jefferson Award. The award citation stressed his lifelong dedication to bringing two worlds and two peoples together, and building Davidson’s South Asian Studies program into one of the foremost in the nation.