I met Dr. Murry DePillars shortly after I began working at Virginia Commonwealth University in July 1979. It was the start of a friendship that endured until his recent passing. I revered Murry for his accomplishments, his perspicacity, his intellectual honesty, and above all for his example: genuine, caring and hardworking. Murry put in long hours on the job, arriving early and leaving late. He had an eye for detail and little in his school escaped his attention. His passing reminds me how fortunate I was to count him among a small circle of friends.
Because of our friendship, I was privileged to see in Murry DePillars things perhaps not visible to most. A warm, engaging and personable man, Murry was intensely private. His space was guarded by him and those who cared about him. Yet he could be generous with his time and persistent in causes he believed in. Murry’s allegiance to students, faculty and staff of the School of the Arts has been noted but the same can be said of his commitment to family, friends and fellow artists in AfriCobra who, in their own inimitable way changed the course of African American art and history.
When Murry DePillars assumed leadership of the School of the Arts in 1976, the university and the city were experiencing significant change. VCU was yet reeling from the effects of a shotgun marriage with the forced merger in 1968 of the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia by the Virginia General Assembly. Richmond was in the throes of substantial demographic shifts that would result in what the newspapers called a “black majority” on City Council. Murry DePillars, with the skill of a maestro, unleashed his considerable talents to build a first-rate School of the Arts by recruiting outstanding students and faculty in art history, sculpture, painting and printmaking, fashion, interior design and music. Simultaneously, he brought town and gown together through campus jazz festivals he organized almost single-handedly, events that brought Blacks and Whites together for gatherings that seemingly only the arts and sports can create. He applied the same model to the annual student fashion shows that brought to the campus industry leaders like Tommy Hilfiger as judges and helped launch successful careers of VCU graduates. Murry DePillars was in the vanguard to burnish VCU’s image locally and nationally. His manifold contributions to VCU are matchless.
Remarkably, while engaged in the foregoing, Murry found time to mentor faculty and students, to review countless portfolios, to be involved on the national arts scene, to lead an incredibly talented faculty — not all of whom wished to be led — and to fight for resources in order to strengthen his school. As if this were not enough, he also carved out time to paint, something he was able to do more of in retirement. Murry was excellent at managing his time and he was prepared to “pull all-nighters” as he called them, when necessary. We were both huge fans of jazz and when I sensed his spirits were low, I could usually prompt a smile with a little ditty called “jelly, jelly, jelly.”
For all of his stature as an academic leader and professional artist, Murry DePillars was self-effacing. He was not inclined toward boasting or self-promotion. That is not to say, however, that he is not worthy of recognition for his lasting substantial contributions to the university and the community and particularly for what he meant to countless students, faculty and citizens of the world. VCU is doubtless a better place because of Murry Norman DePillars.
Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider is president of Schexnider & Associates, LLC, Chesapeake, Va. He is a former vice provost and associate vice president at VCU.
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