On Saturday, Feb. 3, Professor Joseph Holmes Summers passed away at Highland Hospital at age 82 after a short illness. He was the Roswell S. Burroughs Professor of English Emeritus at UR as well as a distinguished scholar and teacher. Summers’ contribution to both the Rochester as well as the university community will be remembered.
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Professor U.T. Miller Summers, three children and ten grandchildren. Summers and Miller came from similar backgrounds, both were born in the south and then migrated to the northeast to attend college.
“Our experiences meshed. After having grown up in the mid-South and living in many places such as Florence, Italy and Oxford, England, we have found life in Rochester very satisfactory,” Miller said.
Summers was a political activist all his life. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard with an English degree in 1941, Summers lived through World War II as a conscientious objector in camps based in New Hampshire and Virginia. In 1943, he got married and went onto graduate school, also at Harvard.
From three generations of Baptist preachers, Summers integrated religion into other aspects of his life, particularly in his library and literary works.
“He was a very religious man and this was reflected in his scholarship. His writings on the religious verses of George Herbert and John Donne were particularly heartfelt,” colleague and long time friend Professor Russell Peck said.
Peck first met Summers in 1965, two years before he came to Rochester.
The culmination of their friendship can be seen in Peck’s “A Tribute to Joseph Holmes Summers,” which he wrote in 1989. Through it, he provides a glimpse into the life and character of Summers. It tells of his intimate friendships with several poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht.
“In a time when scholarship has turned toward critical theory, he always put poetry first,” Peck said.
Summers lived a full and active life to the end. An avid gardener, birdwatcher, singer, and pianist, Peck believes these pastimes were indicators of his kind and gentle nature.
“He was a very considerate man who was very gentle in his relationships with students. He kept in touch with them more than anyone else I know,” Peck said.
Throughout Summers’ lifetime, he has received numerous awards, was the editor of the 25 volume series “Discussions of Literature,” and published several works including “George Herbert: His Religion and Art,” “The Muse’s Method: An Introduction to Paradise Lost,” and “The Heirs of Donne and Johnson.”
“Joe Summers was one of the most distinguished scholars ever to work in the department and his presence — as a leading intellectual voice in his field and as a dedicated teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students—- had a decisive effect on building the department’s national and international reputation,” English Department Chair Bette London said.
His family carries on his legacy of a religious and politically aware existence in their everyday lives.
His daughter, Mary Summers, teaches in the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania while her sister, Hazel Kirk, is a home health care worker and her brother, Joseph Summers, is an Epsicopal priest. Likewise, Miller is a writer and associate professor emerita at Rochester Institute of Technology.
“We had a long, mostly happy life together. He was a wonderful husband, father, teacher, and one of the best writers I have known. I have a hard time imagining the world without him,” she said.
Summers will be missed by faculty, family, and students.
A memorial service will be held at Christ Church, 141 East Avenue, on Saturday, March 1 at 1:30p.m. Memorial donations can be sent there as well as to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960 and the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 3257 Lohr Road, Pittsfield Township, MI 48108.
Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.