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The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

English Professor, Community Service Paragon John Hirsh Dies at 81


John Hirsh, a beloved professor in the Georgetown University English department, died Dec. 6. He was 81. 

Hirsh left behind a legacy of academic dedication and community service, including 13 published books and a network of tutoring programs he organized. A scholar and specialist in medieval English literature — especially the works of Geoffrey Chaucer — and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, Hirsh taught in the English department for more than 53 years. 

Daniel Shore, the chair of the English department, said Hirsh exemplified a commitment to morality and community service throughout his career in academia.

“It is exceedingly rare to encounter a professor – and a continuously prolific scholar over his 53 year career at that – with John’s unwavering commitment to and passion for social justice and service to the community,” Shore wrote to The Hoya.

Courtesy of Margo Kelly and Elizabeth Hirsh |John Hirsh, a longtime Georgetown English professor, leaves behind a legacy of scholarship through his work on medieval literature and service through his leadership of a literacy tutoring program geared toward children from low-income housing units.

Before joining the Georgetown community, Hirsh received his BA from Boston College in 1964 and his PhD from Lehigh University in 1970. He also received a handful of fellowships in the United Kingdom, including several at Oxford — Pembroke College, Wadham College, St. Edmund Hall and Campion Hall — and one at Magdalene College, Cambridge. 

Hirsh was deeply devoted to community service, leading a mentoring program that provided literacy tutoring services to children living in low-income housing units in Washington, D.C., according to a university email from Provost Robert Groves sharing Hirsh’s death. Hirsh began working with the Sursum Corda Co-operative apartments, a large low-income housing complex in downtown D.C., in 1989 and assumed a leadership role in the program three years later.

The program relocated its services to the Golden Rule apartments, a similar nearby community, in 2017 after the Sursum Corda building closed down.

Hirsh taught a “Sursum Corda” class at Georgetown, a community-based learning course that ran in conjunction with his tutoring program. Through the course, Hirsh mentored a team of Georgetown undergraduate students who were each assigned a student and tasked with reading to them and applying the literacy teaching techniques Hirsh instructed them on in class to shape the student into a skilled reader and writer. 

Bradley Galvin (COL ’20, GRD ’21), one of Hirsh’s students in 2019 whom he collaborated on two books with and now helps to coordinate the class, said Hirsh’s class “Sursum Corda” embodied Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“Professor Hirsh embodied this motto through his dedication to the Sursum Corda program for over thirty years and through his kind heart that showed in every interaction we had or that I was lucky enough to witness during our time together,” Galvin wrote to The Hoya. “I will forever hold him in my heart and carry forward the example he set forth in front of me.”

Lily Marino (CAS ’26) also took Hirsh’s “Sursum Corda” class. Marino described the course as an exceptional experience because of the out-of-classroom experiences and ability to work with the D.C. community. 

“This particular class, the “Sursum Corda” class, was very clearly his passion. It was the thing he loved most,” Marino said. 

Darrin Bates, a former mentee in the Sursum Corda program, met Hirsh in 1989 when he was just 8 years old. For roughly 10 years, Bates has been a guest speaker in the “Sursum Corda” class and described his relationship with Hirsh as resembling a father-son bond. 

“Professor Hirsh was my mentor, but he was more than a mentor to me,” Bates said in an interview with The Hoya. “He was pretty much the father I always wanted, and I was the son.”

Bates said the Sursum Corda program changed not only his life but also the lives of countless other young students, allowing them to see life outside of the confines of the inner city. 

“It became a program where kids could come and it was a safe place for them to interact with Georgetown students,” Bates said. “That interaction, I can tell you, was very priceless. It was very supportive of those kids and it helped a lot of kids in that neighborhood, including myself, to look at the world outside of the neighborhood.”

Shiv Newaldass also met Hirsh as a child through the Sursum Corda program. Newaldass described Hirsh as the truest example of a noble scholar. 

“I am forever grateful for having known, experienced, and loved an incomparable soul – the most perfect example from the best amongst us proving exactly how to be the best within us,” Newaldass wrote to The Hoya. 

Professor John Glavin, a colleague of Hirsh’s in the English department, said Hirsh believed people across different backgrounds could reach common ground by serving those in need with fairness and empathy. Glavin feels that Hirsh embodied this belief through his service.

“His exemplary work at Sursum Corda showed all of us at Georgetown, whatever our belief system, the ways in which we can marry devotion to the highest ideals of scholarship with a robust engagement with the world around us,” Glavin wrote to The Hoya.

Hirsh was in the midst of writing his fourteenth book, an additional piece about Sursum Corda, with Galvin. His previous books include “Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales: A Short Introduction” and “Hope Emily Allen: Medieval Scholarship and Feminism,” in which Hirsh dived into his niche of medieval English literature.

Sarah McNamer, a professor of English and medieval studies at Georgetown, said Hirsh was a trailblazer as one of the first scholars to delve into medieval feminism.

“Many of his students and colleagues will be familiar with his work on Chaucer, the medieval lyric, and medieval spirituality, but he also contributed to feminist scholarship,” McNamer wrote to The Hoya. “He was one of the first literary critics to write at length about the literary and spiritual dimensions of “The Book of Margery Kempe,” the first autobiography by a woman in the English language.”

Hirsh also wrote “Power and Probity in a DC Cooperative: The Life and Death of Sursum Corda” and “Inventing Education: Georgetown Students and D.C. Youth Learn From Each Other.” The works chronicle Hirsh’s experience establishing his literacy program at Sursum Corda as the neighborhood wrestled with violence and poverty. Glavin collaborated with Hirsh on the latter work, which features Hirsh’s efforts to extend the program to an online format in the Golden Rule Apartment building due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Pfordresher, an English professor at Georgetown, said Hirsh always wanted to discuss his involvement at Sursum Corda during their regular lunches together, as it was a topic very close to his heart.

“John Hirsh’s selfless dedication to helping D.C. youth led to his years of work, and typical of John, this work led to important books,” Pfordresher wrote to The Hoya. “He understood – always — this was a striking example of Ignatian spirituality — contemplation in action and hence a striking example of a foundational principle of Georgetown University.”

Shore said Hirsh has touched countless students’ lives as a teacher and mentor.

“His greatest legacy is his students, who revered him and whose lives were profoundly changed by him,” Shore said. “I will miss him, but I will continue to be guided by his example.”

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  • V

    virginia hoyJan 10, 2024 at 6:03 pm

    I’m so sad to hear of Professor Hirsh’s passing. I took my undergraduate Chaucer class with him in the late 1980’s and it inspired my love of medieval literature that I continued to pursue in the rest of my undergraduate education as well as in graduate school. He was unfailingly kind and supportive; his scholarship and his commitment to his students’ success will never be forgotten.

  • K

    Kevin BarrJan 2, 2024 at 10:08 pm

    When I was a student back in 1970-74, John was my professor and mentor. He opened my eyes to Moby-Dick and the class notes I took served as the basis for my own teaching for years to come. He encouraged me to become a teacher, wrote the letter of recommendation that got me my first teaching job, and served as a model for the teacher I hope I became: fair, predictable, generous, searching, inspiring, and curious. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

  • W

    William licameleDec 24, 2023 at 7:31 pm

    Wow great man for others.