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Severn Duvall, Henry S. Fox Jr. Professor of English Emeritus, Dies at 87

Severn Parker Costin Duvall, the Henry S. Fox Jr. Professor of English Emeritus at Washington and Lee University, died at his home in Lexington on March 2, 2012. He was 87. He served on the W&L faculty for 33 years, from 1962 to 1995.

“Severn was a valued colleague who served as a mentor to several generations of students as well as to faculty members,” said President Kenneth P. Ruscio ’76.

Duvall was born in Norfolk, Va., on March 25, 1924, to Helen Hobbs Duvall and Severn Parker Costin Duvall. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia in 1948 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, in 1951 and 1955, respectively. Prior to Washington and Lee, Duvall taught at Princeton (1950–1951) and at Dartmouth College (1953–1962), rising from instructor to associate professor there.

He belonged to Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society; Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honorary society; the Alpha Phi social fraternity; and the Raven Society, the University of Virginia’s honorary society.

Duvall served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a lieutenant during World War II (1943–1946) and as a captain during the Korean War (1951–1952). He often participated in the Veterans’ Day ceremony held on the W&L campus in recent years.

Duvall titled his dissertation “The Legend of the South in Southern Historical Fiction.” In addition to southern literature, he taught such topics as American poetry and prose, the Bible as literature, and modern Irish drama and poetry.

He served as head of the W&L English Department from 1962 to 1977 and as the academic director of the W&L Summer Institute for Executives in 1986. He studied on Fulbright grants at the University of Mainz in 1957–1958 and at the University of Warsaw in 1971, teaching while he was at that institution. He also received a Ford Foundation Humanities Grant in 1971 for study in Poland.  He was a visiting fellow at Oxford University in the fall of 1988 and held two Glenn Grants from W&L for his research.

Duvall led the way at W&L in teaching the work of African-American authors, even before the University had African-American students. And as chair of the Glasgow Endowment Committee from 1964 to 1988, he brought to the University a stellar lineup of prominent authors, including Ann Beattie, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary McCarthy, Grace Paley, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Robert Penn Warren, to name just a few.

“We heard the best people read their work,” said his colleague Edwin Craun, professor of English emeritus at W&L, of the Glasgow visitors. “As a young faculty member, I just loved it.” Duvall hired Craun in 1971.

Another colleague, Sidney M.B. Coulling ’48, the S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor of English Emeritus, also mentioned Duvall’s expansion “in an important way” of the offerings in American literature and the value he placed on seminars. “He was a serious student of literature,” said Coulling.

James P. Warren, the S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor of English at W&L, had his first encounter with Duvall in 1984, when the nervous job candidate was about to teach a mock class. “Severn said, ‘Just relax and be yourself, and you will be fine.’  I could have kissed him,” remembered Warren. “It was a very kind, very simple word of encouragement. It meant the world to me at the time, and I am still grateful to him for his kindness.”

Duvall expressed his philosophy of teaching during a 1967 discussion about the coat-and-tie student dress code, which was then in flux. “We will encourage the student to reconsider the old familiar patterns . . .,” he told alumni. “Indeed, we will encourage them to scrutinize unexamined presuppositions of their selves and their world. . . . Education is, after all, a radical act in the rudimentary sense of the word. As student and teacher alike, we go back and try to re-examine.”

He earned the nickname “Dog Duvall” for his rumored frequent application of the grade of D, spurring a student to compose “The Ballad of Dog Duvall.” The piece received “a dramatic recitation after the student discovered that he had indeed passed his senior comprehensive examination,” according to a tribute by Duvall’s colleagues George Ray and Jim Warren on the occasion of his 1995 retirement.

A devoted fan of W&L sports, especially tennis and swimming, Duvall received the R.E. “Chub” Yeakel Memorial Service Award from the Athletic Department in 1995.

Duvall will also be remembered for his appearances on the W&L stage, including his portrayal of Confederate Gen. Nelson Randolph in a 1998 production of “Secret Service, A Drama of the Southern Confederacy.”

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Tamara Przybyl Duvall; by his sister, Ridgley Nash Duvall, of Norfolk, Va.; by his children, Ridgely Howard Duvall ’74, of Cambridge, Mass., Severn Parker Costin Duvall III ’78, of Westport, Conn., Mary Duvall Roosevelt, of Boulder, Colo., and Daniel Hobbs Duvall, of San Francisco; and by his grandchildren, Alfred and Marian Roosevelt and Louise, Eliza and Sarah Duvall.

A memorial service will be held at Lee Chapel on Sunday, March 25, at 4:00 p.m., followed by a reception at the Hotchkiss Alumni House. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic (25 Northridge Lane, Suite 3, Lexington, VA 24450), Friends of Rockbridge Swimming (194 Wallace St., Lexington, VA 24450) and Rockbridge Area Hospice (315 Myers St., Lexington, VA 24450).

  • Read Severn Duvall’s Retirement Citation, adopted by the W&L faculty in 1995
  • Read Jim Warren’s personal tribute to Severn Duvall

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