President Emeritus Davie Napier Dies at 91

February 28, 2007

BERKELEY, CA — B. Davie Napier, president of Pacific School of Religion from 1972 to 1977, died February 24, 2007, in Claremont, CA. He had been in hospice care for over a year at Pilgrim Place, a retirement community.

"He was a preacher, a teacher, a prophet, and a poet," says William McKinney, current president of PSR. "Davie came to this institution at a very difficult time in its history and in higher education generally. Simply put, he reconnected the school to its students."

Bunyan Davie Napier was born in Kuling, China, in 1915, the son of missionary parents. He attended schools in Nanking and Shanghai, China, and in Kobe, Japan, before graduating from high school in Birmingham, Alabama and then earning a B.A. in 1936 from Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham. Napier's daughter, Annie Napier Caffrey, said that her father's social conscience was forged during these years in the Deep South.

A serious student of both the piano and organ, he worked his way through college, divinity school, and graduate school as organist and choir director or minister of music.

He graduated cum laude from the Yale Divinity School in 1939 and earned a PhD at Yale in 1944. He was ordained to the ministry of the Congregational Church in 1939. Three years later, he married Joy Robertson White.

Most of Dr. Napier's life was spent on university and seminary campuses. He was chaplain and chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia from 1946 to 1949; his parents at the time were living in Clayton, Georgia — next door, he would point out, to George Wallace. Returning to Yale in 1949, he was appointed Holmes Professor of Old Testament Interpretation in 1956 and served as master of Calhoun College (1964-66), where he deeply affected many students' lives.

Stanford University in 1966 brought Napier west as dean of the chapel and professor of religion, and his strong presence in the pulpit and the classroom became legendary. In 1972, he was named president of Pacific School of Religion. A year later, he hired Mike Rion to serve as his assistant, and Rion points out that Napier in many ways continued to see himself as a chaplain minister, rather than as the CEO of a seminary. "He was best known as an Old Testament prophetic preacher, and he brought that kind of vision to everything he did," Rion recalls.

Richard Schellhase, the first person the new president hired, served as vice president for development at PSR from 1973 to 1983. Shellhase says that one of the most impressive things about Davie Napier was his modesty and self-effacement. "Another thing everyone knew about him was that he was a devoted and dedicated — even a dependent — spouse," Shellhase recalls. "It was always 'Joy and I' — they were a team, always together, and he depended upon her. If, during a sermon, he forgot a word or reference, he'd lean over the pulpit and ask her for it."

"He was unlike any president I've ever met — so open and non-hierarchical," says Archie Smith, whom Napier hired in 1976 as the seminary’s first African American faculty member. Smith, now the James and Clarice Foster Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling, remembers noon hours at d'Autremont Hall when Davie would play the piano at lunch. "Also, Davie would stop by the library to see and chat with students, and he would come by faculty offices and make what I would call pastoral calls — just to check in to see how things were going."

Doug Adams, professor of Christianity and the arts at PSR, emphasizes that Davie came to PSR at a critical time in higher education. "In the early 1970s, students across the country were disaffected and unfriendly to administrators." Adams says that President Napier took two crucial steps that immensely improved the atmosphere: he moved into Maybeck House, on campus, which soon became pretty much an open house for students.

Also, he took the time to get to know students — even before they arrived on campus. "In the summer," Adams says, "Davie would look at the photos of incoming students and memorize their names. Then, when the students first arrived — before they had met the president — he would yell across the quad, 'Hello, Philip!' or 'Hello, Elizabeth — Welcome to PSR!' He and his wife Joy set a distinct tone of hospitality which really changed the atmosphere here."

Napier wrote many books, including an introduction to the Old Testament, a commentary on Exodus, and two volumes in verse, dealing with selections from Genesis and from the prophets. Word of God, Word of Earth, which was published while he was president of PSR, came from the Lyman Beecher Lectures he delivered at Yale Divinity School in 1975.

Bill McKinney says that while Davie Napier is remembered as a pioneering activist for civil rights and social justice, it's important to acknowledge the roots of those commitments. "He was somebody whose whole life was dedicated to walking in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets — who were distinguished not so much by their politics as by their faithfulness and their awareness of the role of God in history." McKinney sees Napier as an extraordinary leader of PSR at a transitional time, serving for five years between the longer terms of Stuart Anderson before him and Neely McCarter after him. "He was the right leader at the right time."

In addition to his daughter, Davie Napier is survived by several grandchildren and great grandchildren. His son, John, died in 2001. His wife died in 2003.

A memorial service was held on March 18, 2007 at the Claremont United Church of Christ in Claremont, CA. PSR also hosted a gathering of Davie Napier’s friends later that spring. 

(updated 3/13/09)