Jesse Rufus Fears, 67, of Norman, OK, died Saturday, October 6, 2012, in Oklahoma City. He was born on March 7, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Emory Binford Fears and Hazel Davis Fears.
Rufus was a historian of ancient Greece and Rome. He earned his BA, summa cum laude, in History and Classics at Emory University in 1966, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his MA and PhD in Classics at Harvard University, where he wrote a dissertation on the religious aspects of Roman imperial ideology. Published as a book in 1977, his study questioned then-current accounts of Roman history, which focused on material interests and networks of power, by demonstrating the fundamental importance of ideas as a source of political legitimacy. The book marked the beginning of a brilliant career in academic research, which would bring him some of the highest honors which academia offers, such as a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Humboldt Fellowship, and an ACLS Fellowship. His contributions as a scholar lie principally in two areas: first, he revived interest in ideology as a motive force in Roman politics, and second, he explored various conceptions of liberty from a historical perspective. He published numerous books and dozens of articles, including three monographs on Roman ideology in the prestigious Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. He also edited the writings of Lord Acton, a major figure in 19th century British liberal thought. A gifted communicator in every medium, Rufus was an elegant writer (in this regard, as in others, he was also an admirer of Winston Churchill). Rufus' many interests converged in perhaps his finest scholarly essay, "Roman Liberty: An Essay in Protean Political Metaphor," which brought to life the meaning of freedom at different moments in Roman history. Rufus earned tenure in the Department of History at Indiana University in 1975 and became a full professor in 1980. He then joined the faculty in the Department of Classical Studies at Boston University, where he served as chair. In 1990 he came to the University of Oklahoma, where he spent the rest of his career. From 1990-92 he was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1992, he became the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, and Director of the Center for the History of Liberty, in which role he would serve for the rest of his life. In 2004 he was honored with the additional title of David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics.
Though an eminent and decorated scholar, Rufus thought of teaching as his vocation, and he will be lovingly remembered by the thousands of students he impacted in his career. He brought unique charisma, profound erudition, and tireless dedication to teaching. He was famous for his eloquent and colorful performances in the classroom, acting out famous battle scenes and surprising students with his iconic battle stick. His dramatic gifts were coupled with a deep sense of the human element in past times, and it was his ability to translate the facts of history into meaningful life lessons – about leadership, about freedom, about the great ideas – which made such a lasting impression on so many students. At the University of Oklahoma, his classes attained the status of a rite of passage. His legendary two-course sequence "Freedom in Greece" and "Freedom in Rome" filled over 300 seats every semester, with students sitting in aisles and crowding outside his office door seeking permission to enroll. His talent and dedication earned him an extraordinary list of teaching awards (which he pointedly listed at the top of his résumé). He was Professor of the Year three times at the University of Oklahoma, in addition to numerous other accolades and honors. Over the years, he remained a close, life-long mentor to many of his former students, and he found in these relationships one of the most enriching and rewarding aspects of his life as a teacher. His mission as a teacher extended beyond his undergraduate students. He had a special commitment to OU's lifelong learning program and led countless book clubs for seniors. Rufus was an avid traveller, and his study trips were a profound, immersive experience for all those who journeyed with him. In 2007, he was honored to be named the David R. and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a role which allowed him to share his understanding of freedom on a broader scale. Over the last decade, Rufus produced a series of books on tape, mastering this medium and reaching a national and international audience as a teacher. He gave himself to his calling as a teacher, and he was truly one of the great teachers of his age.
Above all Rufus was devoted to his family. He is survived by his beloved wife of 46 years, Charlene, and his two wonderful children, Betsy, 21, and Jesse, 20, who were his pride and joy and his constant companions. Norman became a true home for the Fears family, who remain so grateful for all the love, friendship, and support which they have received over the years from the community, the University, and the state. Rufus is survived by his sister, Laura Fears Callaham and her husband, Robert, of Morganton, NC, and their three sons: William Robert Callaham of Winchester, VA (and his wife Monica and their children, Robert and Sarah); Thomas Emory Callaham of Huntersville, NC; and John Edward Callaham of Greer, SC (and his wife Jennifer). He also leaves behind his brother, Emory B. Fears (and his wife Jacqueline), of Atlanta, GA, and their daughter Ashley E. Fears, of Murfreesboro, TN. He is also survived by his brother-in-law, Thomas Ganka (and his wife Joanne), of Atlanta, GA, and their three sons, Charles (and his wife Tamara), Geordan, and T.J., all of Atlanta, GA.
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Posted on Tue, June 18, 2013
by Classics and Letters