George Epple, a true citizen of the RIC community, retires

George Epple is going fishing.
For the first time since 1971, George Epple will not be going to class in September, or be involved in the numerous roles that have characterized his career at Rhode Island College. He is retiring after 38 years of service.

His teaching appointment as a professor of anthropology just scratches the surface when it comes to chronicling his involvement in the campus community. In 1999 Epple received the Patrick J. O’Regan Award for distinguished service; the citation stated that he had already served on 26 different committees.

That award, which Epple considers one of the highlights of his career, was named for a former mathematics professor at the college, whom he worked with in his early years. They were both subject-area coordinators for the general studies program – Epple for social and behavioral sciences and O’Regan for mathematics and science.

Epple joined the Rhode Island College faculty as the institution was jelling into a true comprehensive college offering education, professional and liberal arts programs.

Reflecting on his first memories of RIC in his Gaige Hall office, Epple remembered seeing an opening for an anthropology instructor in the Department of Social Sciences. Still in graduate school at Brandeis, after earning a bachelor’s in anthropology from Brown, he wasn’t ready to apply.

But when another opportunity appeared a few years later, an advertisement referred to a Department of Anthropology and Geography; the college had divided its single inclusive department into several departments devoted to the separate social science disciplines, including economics, history and political science.

George Epple, in the early 1980s, when he was serving as chair
of the Department of Anthropology and Geography.
“When I saw the RIC job posted, I was interested in it because of the teaching emphasis," Epple recalled. “I couldn’t have known then that my career was going to end up being what it was because my assumption at the beginning was, well, I’d be teaching and I’d be doing research, writing articles and books, being the typical scholar.

“But I got kind of sidetracked into quasi-administrative roles fairly early on.”

Lawrence Lindquist, a professor emeritus of anthropology who was then department chair, encouraged Epple not only to get involved in departmental service but also to sit on committees campus wide.

Epple thinks of Lindquist as a “terrific mentor” and suspects that Lindquist put his “name in the hopper a number of times for major committees,” on which he eventually served.

Lindquist also seems to have encouraged his younger colleague to succeed him as department chair, and the plan had an impressive outcome: Epple held that position for around 20 of his 38 years at Rhode Island College.

Epple has been elected to some of RIC’s most prestigious service posts, including chair of the Curriculum Committee, a body overseeing the requirements for all academic programs, and chair of the Council of Rhode Island College, one of the main governing bodies of the institution.

However much George Epple’s service to the college remains a hallmark of his career, it only represents half of the equation. At heart, he is an anthropologist who loves teaching, and a common thread runs through both roles – the ocean, islands and fishing.

It all began when he was working on his PhD at Brandeis and had the opportunity to do two stints in the Caribbean. During the first, in 1966, Epple spent two and a half months in a fishing village in Trinidad. In the second, which occurred during his doctoral research, he studied a local fishermen’s cooperative in Grenada.

In 2002 Epple returned to both locales. Visiting Trinidad, he met with his primary source of 36 years earlier, a man named Ben Walker, and they reminisced for a couple of hours. In Grenada, while he did not observe major changes, he did see how the introduction of some basic technology could affect a culture.

A flake-ice plant, built there under the auspices of a United Nations project, did have an impact on the scale of fishing industry. Whereas in the past fisherman would usually catch what they could sell the same day because of limited cold storage, they could now bring in more fish per trip and use bigger boats.

Not surprisingly, two of Epple’s favorite courses, which he will be teaching for the final time this summer, are Caribbean “Others” and New England and the Sea.

Epple has some unique approaches to teaching these courses.

Epple with the Del Sesto Mace, which is carried by
the chair of the Council of Rhode Island College
at commencement.
The last third of the Caribbean course deals with East Indians in Trinidad, who are descendants of indentured servants brought to the island in the latter part of the 19th century as labor to replace the emancipated slaves. According to Epple, this ethnic group makes up the largest segment of Trinidad’s population, a fact that surprises most people, who assume that Caribbean populations are primarily of African origin. One other Caribbean nation, Guyana, also has a predominantly East Indian population, he added.

Epple employs a role-playing approach in the course, as he noted, “The students actually assume an East Indian identity. They get a new name. They become members of a family. And they have to go thorough a whole process where they essentially develop a conceptualization of who they are and where they live.

“They choose the house they live in. They develop a household budget. They figure out what their occupations are. Eventually, they negotiate marriages and go through the whole Hindu marriage process as it happens in Trinidad.”

As for the New England and the Sea course, Epple pointed out that he has been teaching it in one form or another for some 35 years. A field-trip-based course, it takes its participants to such locations as Pawtuxet Cove, Mystic Seaport, New Bedford and another one of Epple’s special interests, Cuttyhunk Island, which lies 12 miles south of New Bedford and where he did ethnographic research during a 1978 sabbatical.

“It’s a fascinating place,” commented Epple. “Cuttyhunk has a year-round population of at most 30 people. It has a one-room schoolhouse that covers grades K through 8, and if there are any students, the town has to hire a teacher.

“It’s just an eye opener for most of the students to think about the fact that people in the 21st century live in a small community on this island year round, and make their livings by doing all kinds of different jobs.

“A lot of times they go out there thinking it’s going to be like Block Island. But no. Block Island is a metropolis compared to Cuttyhunk. There are no arcades. There are no restaurants. So people have to fend for themselves.”

Epple especially enjoys the various kinds of people who are attracted to the course, and in one case it became a family affair, when the parents and sister of U.S. Congressman James Langevin, a 1990 RIC graduate, registered for the course.

As his teaching assignments end, George Epple will be shifting gears – somewhat. He may be leaving the classroom behind, but not his interests in the sea and in small specialized groups of people.

He intends to pursue an area that, he admits, his colleagues have chided him about, the culture of surf fishing along the southern coasts of New England. While the rules of the culture are unwritten, it does have them, like “stay out of the way when someone is reeling in a fish” or “never cast across someone else’s line.”

Epple has even observed a well choreographed rotation of fishermen, each taking his turn fishing from the prime spot at the end of a jetty.

“I would like to do an article someday,” he said. “But for a popular journal. I would probably call it something like ‘Emily Post in the Suds.’”

Surf fishing certainly seems to be an appropriate research area for a retired anthropologist. It studies how people deal with leisure time.