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.