Louis Wendell Hodges: Rest In Peace

Lou Hodges, once an active participant in the Society of Christian Ethics and friend and colleague of many current SCE members, died February 8 in Lexington, Virginia. He was 83. Lou was the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics, Emeritus, at Washington and Lee University, the last of two named chairs he held at Washington and Lee. The celebration of Lou’s life that follows revises a tribute that I delivered at his memorial service. Members of our Society will be interested to learn or be reminded that Lou was one of three current and former participants in the SCE who graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, MS: Lou in 1954, Paul Ramsey in 1935, and Howard Pickett, now my colleague at Washington and Lee, in 1998.

Lou’s friends and colleagues in the SCE, as those on the faculty at Washington and Lee, will remember his large personality as enthralling and complicated. Perhaps the best way to describe him is with a riddle. What unites the following: Printer; apiarist; grammarian; United Methodist preacher; hunter; butcher of wild meat; Christian ethicist; advocate for the National Rifle Association; member of the Democratic Party; gunsmith; college teacher; unofficial college pastor, teller of dirty jokes; carpenter; stonemason; turdologist; insistent on wearing a coat and tie in public at all times, but never without a red bandana drooping from his back pocket; and lover of peanut butter (creamy only) on deer burgers? Friends of Lou Hodges know that even though no one fully unites these traits, Lou ably held them together in one self.

Not surprisingly, anyone who combines these traits attracts criticism. Some claimed that Lou was such a rigid grammarian that he could never recognize insightful prose that fell short of grammatical perfection. Don’t believe it. Lou once gave a student paper with a split infinitive a D grade because the ethical reasoning was impeccable. There are those who said that Lou’s consequentialist approach to ethics contradicted his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul Ramsey was likely among them. Lou’s own words prove this critics wrong. Lou always asserted the inviolate right to bear arms, regardless of the consequences. Some contended that Lou had an unrefined taste in cuisine. Those who ate lunch with Lou knew better. He always insisted on creamy peanut butter, without nuts, on his burgers.

As these accounts imply, many of his friends enjoyed chiding Lou for is eagerness to defy expectations—and authority. Even Lou’s devoted spouse, Helen Davis Hodges, occasionally became exasperated with his outspoken criticisms of authority. However, those of us who took pleasure in goading Lou for exaggerated defiance knew that his willingness to risk being called outrageous served him well as a proponent of social justice and as an innovator in education.

Lou and Helen Davis, later Helen Hodges for 62 years, attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi in the early fifties. During that turbulent period, they belonged to the Intercollegiate Fellowship, an interracial fellowship with the then all-Black and neighboring Tugaloo College. The Intercollegiate Fellowship earned close scrutiny from the notorious White Citizens Council of Mississippi. In the middle fifties, the Fellowship nurtured the racial education of Ed King, who became the United Methodist Chaplain to Tugaloo College and a candidate for Lieutenant Governor as a member of the Mississippi Democratic Party. By that time Lou and Helen had left Mississippi for Duke University where Lou received a Bachelor of Divinity degree and a PH.D., writing a dissertation on “Theories of Racial Prejudice.”

In 1960, Lou and Helen came to Lexington and Washington and Lee where Lou became adviser to the University Christian Fellowship. That organization, with Lou’s advice and encouragement (no doubt), decided to invite the then highly controversial Martin Luther King, Jr., to a not yet racially integrated campus. According to Washington and Lee’s campus newspaper, the invitation was never issued. Washington and Lee Board of Trustee’s nixed it. But the Board decision provoked such a vigorous protest from the new, untenured professor of Christian ethics that he was called into the President’s office for consultation. As this story reveals, Lou had a long history of acting according to his own best judgment and speaking his mind, no matter what the personal consequences.

Lou’s disposition to accept risks served him well in the seventies when he and his colleague, friend, and Washington and Lee’s President, Robert E. R. Huntley, decided that undergraduates headed into professions like law, medicine, business, and journalism needed better preparation in ethics. In 1974, Lou founded the Society and Professions Program in applied professional ethics at Washington and Lee. He was the Director of this nearly unique undergraduate program in professional ethics until September of 1997, when he became the first Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics. Lou participated in writing the grant proposal to the Knight Foundation that made this new chair possible, another of his contributions to education in professional ethics. Few faculty help create and then take a new position at an age when most are looking to retire?

It was the same Lou Hodges who joined an interracial group in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early fifties, publicly protested a decision by the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees before he received tenure, initiated an undergraduate program in professional ethics before ethics education for pre-professional students was well established, and launched a new chair in journalism ethics. Lou was in character since undergraduate days, and his character was never passive subordination to the expected. That is why when we goaded him for being outspoken, we did so with a smile.

No one, including Helen and their sons, agreed with every judgment Lou asserted and defended. Nevertheless we are grateful for his willingness to speak his mind in language that was always grammatically, even if not always politically, correct. Those of us in the SCE who knew Lou, have many reasons to be grateful for his innovations in ethics education and for his sometimes brash willingness to risk himself in order to advance social justice.

We remember with gratitude Lou’s devotion to his family of more than sixty years and to us who were his colleagues and friends. We celebrate his willingness to take risks, assert himself for a cause, and innovate, even when it was not in his narrow self-interest. May we all learn from this example. Lou will be missed, but his contributions to our lives live on.


Harlan Beckley

Executive Director, Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty

Founding Director, Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability

Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion

Washington and Lee University