Homer

He had always thought the word was a synonym for a four-bagger in baseball.
Alternatively, the animated father of Bart Simpson. He had never been required to
read the real Homer. Never struggled through the Iliad or the Odyssey in high
school—not in Greek, not in English, not in prose translation, not even in one of
those comic-book versions they make for kids. Before he came to Puget Sound, he
had never run into the name Odysseus.

Chris Sheppard ’08 had somehow managed to avoid contact with the guy who came
up with the Trojan horse, psyched out the Cyclops, bound himself to the mast to
resist the temptations of those irresistible Sirens. Never knew about the wily warrior
who spent years at sea, in caves, on islands, fighting monsters, and arguing with
ghosts in the underworld before coming home to Ithaca in disguise, driving out his
enemies, and reclaiming the loyal Penelope as his own. This first among heroes of
Western Civilization remained a complete stranger to Chris until he got to Puget
Sound and took a humanities course four years ago.

Ever since, he’s been on an epic journey of his own.

Now, you might want to blame Chris Sheppard’s early ignorance of classical
literature on the fact that he comes from New Jersey. We Garden Staters always get
that. For us, “the classics” refer to the season-one episodes of The Sopranos, or, for
an earlier generation, to Frankie Valli’s “Sherry.” Among the really sophisticated,
we’re talking about Sinatra’s version of “That Old Black Magic” or Springsteen’s “
Thunder Road.” We’ve heard all the jokes, and they don’t bother us. (But you have
to admit, that’s a pretty classy list of American cultural touchstones—all from
Jersey.)

But I prefer to blame it on the magic that happens here at Puget Sound. Chris was
the first in his family to go to college, and when he was choosing the place to go he
found Puget Sound on the map and was up for the adventure. He sailed west.

When he left home in August of 2004, he never thought he’d give up summers on
the beach at the Jersey shore and stay here in Tacoma to learn Old English in a
tutorial with a distinguished classicist on our faculty. He didn’t know he’d someday
want to read Beowulf in the original. He didn’t imagine he would become a coxswain
on the rowing team, either, streaking over American Lake or Commencement Bay
early in the morning in a narrow boat with much bigger guys responding to his
barking commands. He had no idea he would bring four of those guys back to New
Jersey another summer—in 2007—to compete in the Intercollegiate Rowing
Association Championship in Camden, the first team Puget Sound ever sent to the
national championship. Needless to say, he never dreamed they would qualify for the
Petite Final, competing in a borrowed boat against those storied Ivy-League sculls.

Chris liked hearing the crews from MIT and Brown and Princeton express admiration
for the unsung heroes from a place called Puget Sound; he put the phonetic spelling
of “pew-jet” on the back of the UPS rowers’ shirts, so the Ivy boys would pronounce
it right.

And Chris certainly didn’t imagine he would become a classics major and then,
eventually, a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship to continue his study in graduate
school at Oxford. For us in Jersey, Oxford was the kind of shirt with buttons on the
collar we wore to Sunday school. Chris didn’t make the final cut for the Rhodes, but
Oxford accepted him directly into its graduate program anyway. So his adventure
continues, as he crosses the ocean on his own unlikely odyssey aboard the swift but
narrow boat of his dreams. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Chris back here as
a classics professor himself in a few years. If we can get him. Chris is the captain of
his own boat now. It’s magic.

I could tell you more stories. Just as good. But I’m running out of space. Which is
just as well. There are some limits on Puget Sound’s magic, I guess. But not many.