Retiring professor Barry Levis always enjoyed a good, old-fashioned revolution.
(Photo by Scott Cook) Barry Levis didn’t want to come to Florida. He had roots in suburban Philadelphia—the Levis family had lived in Pennsylvania since 1690—and not much of a hankering to leave the Northeast. He applied to Rollins because his then-mother-in-law asked him to (the school had a good tennis team). He took the job because the school offered him more money than Temple, and because it was more focused on teaching than research, which he appreciated. He didn’t like the South, and he certainly didn’t plan to stay very long.
That was 1968.
That’s not the only time his plans changed. When he was an undergraduate at Penn State back in the ’60s, he initially set out to study science because his father told him to do something practical with his life. Two lab fires later, he decided that maybe that wasn’t his calling. He did, however, enjoy his liberal arts classes—and he was getting straight A’s in them. History it was.
The first class he took in grad school—again, Penn State—was on the Reformation. There, he found the subject of much of his life’s work: English history and the history of the Anglican Church. “Anybody as cool as Henry VIII had to be worth studying,” he says. (Henry VIII, if you’re unfamiliar, was a 16th-century English king who split the country from the Catholic Church; he also had six wives during his reign, including Anne Boleyn, whom he had executed.)
Having studied history, he needed a teaching gig. His job brought him to Florida. But why did he stay so long?
“I had wonderful colleagues in the department,” he says. “I enjoyed teaching.” And then there were the intangibles—family issues, inertia—that conspired to keep him in Florida.
Four-and-a-half decades is a long time to stay in one place. And during that span, he’s seen Rollins change. The campus has become increasingly beautiful, he says. “The students [now] are brighter but not as interesting. Of course, that was the ’70s. Everybody was burning something down.”
In 1970, to offer an example, he was teaching a class on the French Revolution. There was some talk of constructing a fake guillotine, “kidnapping” the school’s president, and trying him in the center of campus. Ultimately, he scuttled this idea, which turned out to be particularly fortuitous: The day of the scheduled guillotining, May 4, 1970, was the date of the Kent State massacre.
Another story, which he related in a 2005 oral history of his time at Rollins: A freshman in an introductory course (which included as texts both business and radical literature) turned in as a term paper… well, we’ll let him tell it: “His term paper was a box filled with paraphernalia on how to be, how to raise consciousness. And he included a dashiki, flip-flops, beads, and this envelope of mysterious tobacco-like product and paper wrapping for it. And I, you know this is true. … I had never seen marijuana up to that point. I sniffed it and said, ‘This does not smell like tobacco.’ So I went immediately down the hall to [then-assistant professor] Charlie Edmondson’s office and said … ‘Charlie, is this what I think it is?’ And he said, ‘Oh my God. You probably need to get this out of your office.’”
Things like that don’t happen anymore, but that has less to do with Rollins and more with general cultural trends. Still, talking to Levis, you get a sense he misses those days.
In time, Levis, an Episcopalian with shiny white hair, became a sometimes outspoken fixture on Rollins’ campus, at one point the faculty president. He was the director of the school’s Graduate Program in Liberal Studies. Until last year, he was the director of Rollins’ Honors Program and the Hamilton Holt School’s Humanities Program.
In the classroom, his teaching on the church’s history and evolution challenged his students, particularly those from more traditional backgrounds. His research and writing focused heavily on cultural aspects of the Anglican Church’s evolution—“how we can understand that change by looking at the things it did in a cultural way.” He argues—and this is controversial in his field—that the church was heavily influenced in all ways, from architecture to politics, by the Enlightenment and thinkers like John Locke. His writings on the Anglican Church have been published in the Journal of Church and State, the European Studies Journal, and Church History, among others.
Levis is retiring now in part because it’s the practical thing to do: If he stays any longer he wouldn’t receive the school’s retirement package. And, some four decades after he thought he would, he’s finally leaving the South. He’ll do so on June 12, returning with his husband to Wayne, a small town in the Philly suburbs.