When he was chair of the faculty, Joe Templeton greeted everyone coming into an executive committee meeting with an index card on which there was a question, or sometimes a single word. For instance, “how would you explain to a friend on the bus what academics do?” or “How would you justify a research leave to someone who had never done academic research?”
A musician, a coach, a scientist, a psychologist, a dentist and a liver transplant surgeon would respond from very different perspectives — and that set the tone for Joe’s meetings. Joe himself would come at it with a one-room schoolhouse upbringing in rural Iowa … and from the point of view of one of the most versatile members of a star-studded chemistry faculty … and, finally, from his experience of never saying “no” to some of the most challenging, most tedious tasks a teacher and researcher can be asked to take on.
Word around campus is there’s no job so difficult or unpleasant you can’t give it to Joe Templeton. He proved that himself when Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 asked him to implement the Bain Report, a complex and comprehensive set of recommendations for shrinking UNC’s expenses through cutting managerial layers, refining the roles of centers and institutes, and consolidating services. As much as they might have embraced organizational reform and the savings that went with it, nobody wanted this job.
Someone had to deliver the bad news and make sure the measures were followed. And when Holden called, Joe said “yes.” Former trustee Tim Burnett ’62 summed it up: “Holden Thorp uses Joe as a one-man swat team.”
As chair of the Faculty Council, he led the discussions on whether to accept $5 million from the Pope Foundation to expand studies in western civilization, whether to approve an achievement index to supplement the GPA and whether to allow priority registration for some undergraduates.
In the past 35 years, he has been department chair and chair of the summer reading program book selection committee. He served on the chancellor’s advisory committee and the faculty executive committee. In 2002, he was named the Francis Preston Venable Professor of Chemistry. He served on the most recent chancellor selection committee — and incidentally, renowned chemists Holden Thorp and Joe DeSimone both reported to him. Regardless of whatever administrative role he has taken on, he has continued to teach a full course load, as well as mentor graduate students, apply for grants and run his own research projects.
Valerie Ashby ’88 met Joe when she was one of his chemistry students and got to know him better as a colleague when she returned to UNC to teach. This summer she’ll become his boss as the chair of the chemistry department. “Whenever there’s a problem that needs careful attention, Joe is called upon to work on it,” Valerie said. “That speaks of the confidence leaders on campus have of his ability to discern issues and understand the big picture. There are few places I can go on campus where someone doesn’t know Joe.”
But — perhaps we are taking Joe a bit too seriously.
During his first Faculty Council meeting as chair, he appeared as a reincarnation of Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, complete with costume.
As the faculty representative to the committee that considers the GAA’s awards, he was famous for eloquent and long-winded endorsements which usually concluded with, “Having said that, I plan to vote for somebody else.”
The reason everybody knows him, he insists, “is because Holden Thorp and Joe DeSimone both reported to me.”
His wit is quite well calculated, says former Chancellor James Moeser. Joe, he says, “shows a healthy disrespect for authority.”
But for all the levity, Joe takes very seriously what needs to be accomplished.
“If you only tell sweetness and light about joe,” Tim Burnett said, “people will know you didn’t investigate him thoroughly.”
When he recalls that one-room school, Joe says, “That influences my outlook on what education could be or should be. I can’t think of a worse situation for teaching, but it’s a pretty good situation for learning.”
Carolina’s distinguished chemistry department would love to have Joe as an alumnus. Blame his sister Jane for that. She applied to college for him, and she sent the application to Cal Tech. That, we trust, is a story he’ll tell us.
For the last 15 years Joe has been slowly losing his hearing. That, he takes in stride just as he does the requests for his leadership on difficult assignments. “When you can’t hear,” he says, “you have to really work at listening.”
Joe Templeton has been listening carefully, acting creatively, and saying yes enthusiastically to whomever needs his varied expertise.
The Faculty Service Award is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.