Campaign Gifts

My Star Thouílt Be: Alumni Establish Endowments Honoring Eric Naylor

Professor Naylor demonstrates a tool chest he has inherited from his grandfather. "If you want a beautiful backdrop for a photo, you should see this," he says. The chest is inlaid with wood from around the world, gifts from traveling friends.

In February 2006, Rob Pearigen, vice president of University Relations, took the podium at a faculty meeting to talk about progress in The Sewanee Call capital campaign. One item of business was to give public notice of a new merit scholarship created through a gift from Sarah C’89 and Jimmy Wilson C’73 in honor of Jimmy’s fraternity brother and Sewanee Spanish professor Eric Naylor.

Naylor was so moved by the announcement that he made one of his own. Struck by the Wilsons’ generosity, he pledged to match the gift, doubling the size of the merit scholarship. It was a Sewanee moment, through and through, which fits into a lifetime of Sewanee moments for the retired Spanish professor.

Eric Naylor’s house in Sewanee is aligned north and south, as he is happy to point out, motioning to the ridge beam of the vaulted ceiling in his comfortable living room. Should he care to sit still a moment, on winter evenings he could observe Polaris out the wall of windows on the north side—a design feature Naylor regrets when he receives his heating bill, but fortuitous for its view of a lovely woodland lake that backs up to the lots on Running Knob Hollow Road across the way. “I had it built this way on purpose,” he says. “I’ve lived practically all my life in Sewanee, and I still have trouble knowing what direction I am looking.”

While his home orients Naylor to the cardinal directions, there is a real sense that what really aligns him is his relationship with Sewanee: as if he has incorporated the closing words of the alma mater, “And all my life, through storm and strife, My star thou'lt be!”

Naylor arrived in Sewanee in 1954 from West Tennessee, a young representative of a family of artisans, inventors, and farmers. He graduated in 1958 and went to the University of Wisconsin on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, earning the Ph.D. in Spanish in the short span of four years. In 1962 he was back in Sewanee as a member of the Spanish faculty, where he taught a couple of generations of students until his retirement in 2004. He counts Sewanee professors David Underdown, Tim Pickering, and Bailey Turlington, as influences on his life. Underdown, his academic advisor, was “very helpful,” and Pickering was a “good teacher—modest, shy—almost too shy,” and Turlington was a “good friend.” 

At Wisconsin, Naylor became interested in an important medieval work, “The Book of Good Love,” a piece that covered many aspects of Spanish medieval life in much the same way as Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” took on the grand themes of Medieval England. The author—Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita—is as much a fictional character in the work as a real person. This research interest has also led Naylor to spend considerable time in Hita, Spain, presumed home of Ruiz, where Naylor is involved in local culture, helping organize an annual festival dedicated to the “Book of Good Love.”  [Interestingly enough, Hita sits in the Henares Valley near the foot of a small mountain, which is an outcropping of a larger plateau. It looks from Google Earth to be a dry Iberian Sewanee.]

With his Spanish research partner Manuel Criado de Val, Naylor published three different editions of the “Book of Love” (some of which were re-issued for a total of five publications) from 1965 to 1997. The latest publication was a beautiful boxed edition published by Espasa Calpe, one of Spain’s most revered publishing houses, in celebration of its centennial.

“One should not have too much pride, but I was very happy that Espasa chose our edition as the one book that best represented their history as a publisher,” Naylor says. At his retirement, he was also working on a CD-ROM version of the work with Professor Stephen Kirby. The project was published by the Hispanic Society in 2004.

When Jimmy Wilson determined to honor Naylor during the Campaign, he was actually not honoring a former professor (he was a psychology major). Wilson and Naylor came to know each other as members of the Chi Psi fraternity. 

“I have known Eric for over decades,” says Wilson.  “He has been a mentor and friend, and he has been that kind of friend to members of the Chi Psi fraternity. He is very plain spoke, fair, a real gentleman. When Sarah and I decided we wanted to do something in this campaign, there were two things that immediately felt right: we liked the idea of establishing an endowed scholarship fund, and we especially liked the idea of naming it in honor of Eric. Even though Sarah was not a member of our fraternity, it was really her idea. She knew how important Eric was to so many people, and she made the suggestion. It felt right instantly. I think it is important to recognize our heroes—our mentors—in a way that makes them a permanent part of the resources of the University. I think many people probably feel that way.”

The Wilsons are majority owners in Automated License Systems, a company that streamlines the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses in several states. The company operates kiosks in chain stores and their website gives consumers the ability to purchase licenses online in many states. For the states that have contracts with ALS, the company handles the financial transactions and makes it more efficient for the states as well as consumers. 

The Wilsons’ gift is not the only recognition of Naylor from Sewanee graduates. A recent gift from Shawn and Robert Ross C’80 (also a Chi Psi) has established an endowed faculty support fund, part of a $10 million Faculty Achievement Fund that the university hopes to establish through The Sewanee Call campaign. Individual donors can establish endowed funds in honor of a faculty member or someone else of their choosing. Sewanee alumni have responded to this opportunity generously, creating named funds in honor of Naylor, Gilbert Gilchrist, John Reishman, Stephen Puckette, Marcia & William Clarkson, and William Guenther. [Two other such funds will be named for faculty members through anonymous gifts and the names have not been released yet.]

Naylor’s appearance among this alignment of the stars is a clear indication that not only has Sewanee been a guiding influence for him, but that he has also been a polestar for generations of students through good teaching, lifelong engagement in his subject, and integration into a community of scholars, both in Sewanee and among international peers.

Today, in retirement, Naylor is still active, reading about the people and culture of the Henares region. He will return to Spain again this year, as he has every summer and every sabbatical leave throughout his career and through the auspices of two Fulbright Fellowships. A gentleman, a scholar, a brother, a friend—Eric Naylor is honored by students and his college as his presence honors Sewanee.