Indeed, based purely on the news stories, the emotional statements at press conferences and the myriad social media posts, any reasonable person would conclude that Epps — Temple’s president, former provost and law school dean, a distinguished legal mind and once-rumored U.S. Supreme Court nominee — was larger than life.
Epps was much more than just an impressive, trailblazing woman, though.
To many Philadelphians, Epps was someone they truly loved — in part because she loved them.
“The woman that saved my life”
“One of the most important conversations I had with her was in May when we were at the Barristers Gala,” former Barristers Association President Kevin Harden, Jr., says. A distinguished attorney in his own right, Harden attended Temple’s Law School when Epps was in leadership there. “I saw her and said to her, ‘You’ve got a birthday coming up. Any plans?’”
As Harden tells it, Epps stopped and looked at him. She wondered how he even knew that.
“I said, ‘It’s on my calendar!’ She looked up, and she got emotional,” Harden goes on, “and said ‘God bless you, I just love you.’”
“She’s that person for so many people out in the world, but,” Harden pauses, a combination of loving bemusement and solemn respect accenting his words, “I learned that from her.”
Harden’s connection to Epps is something. For him, she’s one of those rare truly decisive mentors who was there at a pivotal moment. Upon her passing, Harden posted on social media that Epps had saved his life. How figurative, or literal, he’s being is really in the eye of the beholder.
“She was the person who taught me that if I leaned into this, then it would lean back into me.” — Kevin Harden, Jr.
After getting shot five times in Southwest Philadelphia and inexplicably surviving, Harden decided to start, as he says, turning his life around. He wanted to be a lawyer. But at the law school at Philadelphia’s largest public university, he felt “like a fish out of water” thanks to his experience with a reality most people only see in gritty, overwrought, and too often glamorized, dramatizations.
“I was wearing my pants hanging off my behind, jerseys, fitted hats,” Harden says. “I was the ‘middle finger to the judge’ guy.”
Still, Epps saw beyond the defensive caricature Harden had built around himself and wanted to nurture his innate talent and character. She connected him to another Black male lawyer, and they both took on roles mentoring Harden. When the Pennsylvania Bar Association refused Harden’s application to be admitted due to his earlier arrest background, Epps testified on his behalf. When he wanted to be a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Harden received Epps’ imprimatur.
Since then, he’s proven himself to be one of the most successful and sought after, litigators in Philadelphia. Epps early confidence, though, was critical to Harden becoming the man he is today.
Just as he was transforming out of youthful indiscretion and into the form of the quintessential Philadelphia lawyer, Harden, the oldest of five children, experienced the loss of both of his parents. It’s fair to say that Epps stepped in as a mother figure. And that Black male lawyer Epps connected Harden to? That was Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker.
“JoAnne showed tens of thousands of people during her lifetime that the best leaders are not distant, authoritarian, or obtusely creative. JoAnne taught folks to first and foremost love what you do, love the people you do it with.” — Ray Smeriglio
In a way, Harden’s terrible loss of both parents left a practical void anyone without one or both parents can understand. Epps and Tucker were able to not replace his parents but, in some meaningful way, they stepped in, providing support, guidance, and most importantly, love. In turn, he was able to be present for his younger siblings, some of whom he helped through college.
Epps showed Harden, through her attention and diligent, staid support, “I could do this. She validated me in a space where I wasn’t sure if I belonged or what I was doing,” he adds. “She was the person who taught me that if I leaned into this, then it would lean back into me.”
Harden isn’t alone pointing out Epps’ influence, how she inspired others to maintain the connections that turn a contact list into something more like an extended family. Those connections aren’t the kind of hustle culture hogwash peddled on LinkedIn ads, either. Epps’ brand of networks are meaningful in the human sense.
Epps’ human connections
Her acute ability to climb the university’s figurative ivory tower while still keeping her feet on the ground showed in the reaction to her passing. The number of organizations issuing statements was itself newsworthy: The Philadelphia Barristers Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus, even Mayor Jim Kenney and Governor Josh Shapiro made statements. Sitting judges, politicians, journalists, and others posted remembrances and thoughts online.
Her death even made national news. Sure, it was noteworthy that a major public university’s leader passed suddenly at a college event. But there was something different about this.
In his statement, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat who represents areas including Temple’s campus in North Philadelphia, didn’t include standard boilerplate. Instead, he started from back before he could vote.
“I met JoAnne Epps when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Temple University. Though our titles have changed over the years, one thing never did, and that was she was always a friend and a mentor.” Kenyatta said. Then, he said something even more poignant: “I will miss her always.”
It’s the kind of thing you’d say about a loved one, not just a great leader.
What makes a great leader?
For Ray Smeriglio, it’s Epps’ personal touches that take her from a level of everyday academic with a portrait in some hallway to beloved mentor whose story is told in perpetuity across hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in Philadelphia and beyond. When news of Epps passing broke, Smeriglio recalled his friend and mentor by sharing screenshots of texts Epps had sent him through the years.
They read like the earnest encouragement and good humor you’d get from your mother or aunt.
“At a time when so many of our leaders across the world have let us down, JoAnne was the glowing, shining exception,” he says. A Temple alumnus and adjunct instructor, Smeriglio, from 2013 to 2019, was the in-game host and voice of the Temple Owls for home football and basketball games. Today, he’s an official with the Kenney administration’s Rebuild initiative.
“Love is a verb. Put it into action every day for the people around you.” — Ray Smeriglio
Even after his time as sports host was over, Smeriglio still enjoyed games with what he calls his “Temple family,” including Epps. “As an early 20s freshly out queer man, I would bring whatever guy I was seeing at the time to try to impress them,” he laughs.
“My now-partner Miguel joined me at a game late in the basketball season one year, and JoAnne and he really hit it off,” he recalls. But this was different. Instead of a new date on his arm the next season, Smeriglio showed up with Miguel again. This, in other words, was real. And, at least according to Epps, Smeriglio chose wisely.
“JoAnne reached for him, pulled him aside when I wasn’t looking, and whispered, ‘I was rooting for you.’”
He adds, “She was always human, kind, and funny. She always knew just what to say to make someone feel comfortable and welcome.”
It’s a common theme in speaking with people who knew Epps, this ability to make people feel at ease, at home —like they’re supposed to be there.
“She developed a certain demeanor, and it’s because she lived life and went through these things, the insecurities, all of it, and working through those things she could recognize it in other people,” Harden observes, reflecting on Epps’ seemingly superhuman ability to do all the things and still have time to be a good person who genuinely cares about a lot of people.
When Covid first gripped Philadelphia, Epps was Temple’s provost. Mired in the logistical nightmare that was the early pandemic, Epps still found time for her chosen family, texting good morning and checking in on how some were doing during lockdown, living in an epidemiological dystopia before vaccines. In one text, Epps is asking how Smeriglio and his partner are doing.
“The most jarring fact about that text,” he says, astonished, “it was sent on April 27, 2020, just weeks into Temple University’s [programs] for over 40,000 students and hundreds of faculty needing to go from completely in-person to completely virtual. As provost, that task was up to her, and in that moment, she thought to check in on her friends, to send a kind text, and to look toward the future.”
This, too, is a common theme.
“I was amazed at how she would respond to my texts and emails, given the demands on her,” head of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission Chad Dion Lassiter observed in a statement. “Her emails, her encouraging texts, and how she touched so many will never be forgotten.”
“It baffles me, frankly,” Smeriglio admits. “It’s a level of thoughtfulness that we simply just don’t see anymore.” The fact that Epps was reportedly on President Obama’s short list for nominations to the Supreme Court doesn’t make her seem less superhuman, either.
“You’ve got to pay attention to people”
When asked what it would take for people to replicate Epps’ leadership, to be the kind of person remembered as she is, Smeriglio thinks those qualities can be defined, in part, by what they are not.
“JoAnne showed tens of thousands of people during her lifetime that the best leaders are not distant, authoritarian, or obtusely creative. JoAnne taught folks to first and foremost love what you do, love the people you do it with,” he says. “Love is a verb. Put it into action every day for the people around you.”
For his part, Harden thinks Epps legacy is that her kind of love — of her job, of people, of her family — is something that’s achievable for everyone so long as they make the necessary sacrifices. Some of those include basics, conditioning yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually.
“Energy and enthusiasm for people — that is something that comes from taking care of yourself,” Harden says. “For someone to replicate her, they’ve got to have the reps.” Invoking a term used most often in reference to building muscle makes sense given the rigorous demands mentally and spiritually that being present for others requires.
“She had the presence of mind that you’ve got to pay attention to people.” he pauses. “She was thoughtful that way.”
“I will miss you dearly”
On the day the terrible news reverberated throughout Philadelphia that JoAnne Epps had passed, among hundreds of statements and comments, Harden had a simple message.
“To the woman who saved my life, thank you for everything. I will miss you dearly.”
He ended his post with something even more personal: “Love you, Dean Epps.”
Love. He had learned it from her.