An accomplished scholar, respected teacher, and devout Christian, tenured Hillsdale classics professor Grace Starry West died suddenly from lung cancer on Sunday, May 19, in her home. Her Order of Burial service was held May 22 at Holy Trinity Parish in Hillsdale.
Perhaps best known for the great depth and variety of her research, the pinnacle of her translation work came in 1984 when she collaborated with her husband, Hillsdale Professor of Politics Tom West, to translate works by Plato and Aristophanes.
She also taught at the collegiate level for 44 years — 35 years as an associate professor of classics at the University of Dallas and eight years at Hillsdale College.
“I was very happy to assist in the transition of the Wests from Dallas to Hillsdale,” said Hillsdale Provost David Whalen.
While he had no previous relationship with West, Whalen said he was struck by her seriousness yet simultaneous pleasantness on the phone. Upon arrival, she adapted to her new environment quite well, and quickly.
“Few people can be so readily a part of something after spending decades somewhere else,” Whalen said. “Everything I know about her time here at Hillsdale agrees that she was a stalwart member of the classics department, absolutely reliable, and a sound teacher and scholar.”
Associate Professor of Classics Gavin Weaire remembers West’s immense contributions to the field of classics. Among her colleagues in Hillsdale’s classics department, she was the most published and had many articles about Virgil- the focus of her doctoral dissertation.
While Latin and Latin poetry were her specialties, Weaire said she was also astonishingly knowledgeable in Greek.
West and Weaire were good friends outside the department, often getting meals together.
“She was a great personal help to me over the years, at various times when I needed help,” Weaire said.
Within the department, she was an active contributor to group decisions and also willing to help colleagues and students outside the classroom. Weaire said West had “tremendous generosity.”
“If you were in trouble, Grace was extraordinarily willing to help, to go outside and put her own interests behind other people’s,” he said.
During her decades of teaching prior to Hillsdale, she was able to make immense contributions to the University of Dallas and to its students. According to her obituary, she helped found the classics department at the University of Dallas. She was also able to positively influence students at the undergraduate and doctoral levels.
West instructed Hillsdale Assistant Professor of English Benedict Whalen in several Latin courses while he was an undergraduate at the University of Dallas.
Whalen distinctly remembers how her seminar class on Virgil’s “Aeneid” impacted him.
“I am profoundly indebted to her as a kind and patient teacher for showing me Virgil’s excellence and why we should love and study Virgil,” Whalen said. “She brought whole new worlds out of Virgil for me and had a delicate touch in leading students to see the poetry and careful art in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid.’”
Whalen said and his fellow students often prompted West to go on tangents about ancient Rome — in which she conveyed facts through stories about Rome and Latin — that kept the class engaged during lectures.
A lover of the book ever since West’s class, Whalen has taught the “Aeneid” in English in several classes at Hillsdale and other universities. It is one of the books that he believes is important to the Great Books tradition.
“Her teaching me how Latin poetry and Virgil’s poetry works was one thing I will never forget, and for which I am extremely grateful,” Whalen said.
Several years later, then University of Dallas Ph.D candidate Jason Stevens also had an equally impactful experience in one of West’s Greek classes.
In order to achieve a Ph.D in politics, students at the University of Dallas were required to take both modern and ancient languages. Stevens chose to complete German and Greek. He recognized the difficulty that he had with languages going into Grace West’s class.
Having already finished the three basic Greek courses, he would have to pass one final Greek translation course.
“When I came into the Herodotus translation class with Dr. Grace West, that was sort of a make or break moment for me,” Stevens said. “I would not have been able to do it without her help and guidance. I mean that woman treated me better than I deserved, she was patient, she was kind, she was always willing to work with you to help you.”
By the end of the course, Greek was no longer an issue for Stevens, and he admitted that it somehow all made sense for the first time.
“Something clicked and I got it, unlike ever before. I cannot explain why but I know it had everything to do with her,” he said.
Like Ben Whalen, he went on to achieve his doctorate, and also taught from the main text taught by West. Stevens has taught Western Civilizations 1 at Ashland University several times, and uses selections from Herodotus, teaching with translations developed in her class.
Stevens is grateful to West for teaching him to understand Greek unlike before and helping him to achieve his aspiration of a Ph.D.
According to West’s obituary, the family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to Hillsdale College with a note “in memory of Grace West.” The funds will be used in support of classics students.