Extending the St. John’s Mission Around the Globe
February 5, 2018 | By Tim Pratt
Over the last 60 years, St. John’s College tutor Eva Brann has affected the lives of students, colleagues and readers around the world.
Brann, 89, has guided generations of students through the great books of Western civilization, delivered countless lectures and speeches, and received international acclaim for her work in the liberal arts.
“Her talks and writings have extended St. John’s mission across the nation and around the globe,” says David Townsend, a St. John’s tutor since 1974. “She understands the significance of a true liberal education for the foundation of the American republic, for justice, and for civil society.”
For Brann’s efforts, the Maryland Office of the Comptroller recently honored her with a Certificate of Recognition. On it, Comptroller Peter Franchot described Brann as a “world-renowned philosopher, author and educator at St. John’s College.”
“With special appreciation for your vast contributions to the global academic community and St. John’s College as a dean from 1990-1997 and as the College’s longest serving tutor after joining the faculty in 1957, congratulations and best wishes for many more years of health and happiness,” the comptroller wrote.
Brann says she is honored and grateful to receive the recognition. The framed certificate now hangs on a wall in her home, along with many others she has accrued during her lengthy career at St. John’s.
The Journey Begins
Brann’s journey to Annapolis began in the mid-1950s in Athens, Greece. She was an archaeologist at the time, and was participating in a fellowship alongside a St. John’s tutor.
The more Brann learned about the college and its great books curriculum, the more it piqued her interest. She wanted to explore deep questions, too.
In the fall of 1957, following a year of teaching archaeology at Stanford University, Brann joined the St. John’s faculty. She says she quickly fell in love with the college and the Program.
“I was absolutely enchanted,” she says. “I felt like a fish in water from the beginning.”
While Annapolis was a much quieter town back then, the college was much like it is now. Seminars were the same. Conversations focused on the books. Students “turned into Johnnies.”
“They weren’t very different from us (now), as I remember,” Brann says.
Brann says she felt “happily overwhelmed” with her new job as a tutor, and her work in archaeology became a distant memory.
Tutor Chester Burke (A74) recalls coming to Annapolis as a 16-year-old freshman in 1970. Brann was his freshman seminar tutor.
“We loved going to seminar,” Burke says. “She was really smart, but she also asked us these questions that we couldn’t believe people were asking.”
In the ensuing years, Brann had a similar effect on many other students and colleagues. The more she taught, wrote and lectured, the more her reputation grew. A prolific writer, Brann has written more books than she cares to count.
Townsend says Brann’s philosophical investigations of the imagination “both uncover the depths of myth and demonstrate that beauty, character, friendship, and story are foundations of the human soul.”
“Eva’s vision, industry, generosity, and insight have made her a terrific intellectual leader of the St. John’s faculty,” Townsend says. “I first met her in 1974 and I swear she has gotten better every year for the 45 years I have known her.”
In 2005, then-President George W. Bush presented Brann with the National Humanities Medal. Several years later, Brann met Barack Obama. Photos of her meetings with the country’s 43rd and 44th presidents now hang in a hallway at her home, along with her awards.
Every item in Brann’s home has a story. Many items are gifts from members of the St. John’s community. Others stem from relationships she has formed elsewhere.
Figurines of Jane Austen and characters from her books stand on a shelf. Artwork hangs on the walls between tightly packed bookshelves.
Even Brann’s bathroom has a connection to the college. She hired students to install tile in the room nearly 50 years ago. They sang madrigals while they worked, she says with a smile.
So far, their work has held up.
“I haven’t lost one tile,” she says.
Burke is one of many who have maintained close ties with Brann over the years. After Burke graduated, he moved to France to become a professional flutist, but returned to St. John’s in the early 1980s. Burke eventually began giving his former tutor flute lessons.
“She was the best student I ever had because she worked really hard,” Burke says. “She’d want to play the most difficult things. You’re not supposed to do that when you’re learning, but she was very determined.”
Brann recalls sitting in her office as dean and playing the flute before work. The sound of the music floating down the hallway would let others know she was in the building, and soon people would begin stopping by to see her.
Brann has many happy memories working with colleagues and students. She has enjoyed guiding Johnnies through some of history’s greatest works, and working alongside tutors who went on to become close friends. She also helped start the annual Begone Dull Care winter concert, participated in a variety of study groups and attended countless events on campus.
Yet, Brann says her time at St. John’s doesn’t feel like 60 years.
“It feels like one long day,” she says.
St. John’s Annapolis President Panayiotis Kanelos presented the comptroller’s certificate to Brann on January 30. The pair was joined by Dean Joe Macfarland (A87).
Brann chuckled as Kanelos read the comptroller’s words. When Kanelos was done, Brann looked closely at the bottom of the certificate and gave a wry smile.
“The comptroller hereby releases you from taxes for the rest of your life,” she joked.