JoAnne A Epps, the acting president of Temple University, died Tuesday shortly after becoming ill on stage during a memorial service, officials said, describing her loss as a gut punch and struggling through emotion as they recalled her nearly four decades of service.
Epps was attending a memorial service at the university for Charles L Blockson, a curator of a collection of African American artifacts, when she suffered what a doctor speaking at a news conference described as a “sudden episode”.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Epps, who was scheduled to speak at the service, slumped in her chair shortly after the event began and was carried out in the arms of a uniformed officer after the announcer asked if there was a doctor in the house.
Epps was taken to Temple University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead around 3.15pm Tuesday, the university said. She was 72.
Ken Kaiser, the senior vice president and chief operating officer at Temple, declined to speculate about Epps’s health prior to her collapse, but he called her death a “gut punch for all of us right now”.
“We are not aware that President Epps had any health issues,” Kaiser said at the news conference.
Kaiser told the Associated Press that he had known Epps for three decades.
“JoAnne was full of life, somebody who was super compassionate and truly cared about other people and had a wonderful way of pulling them all together and getting people excited about even a daunting task, making things fun,” he said.
Gregory Mandel, the Temple University provost, choked up as he described Epps.
“We are all in deep grief and at a loss for words. To know JoAnne is to be her friend,” Mandel said at the news conference.
Mandel said the university’s board of trustees would meet Wednesday to “put together a plan for us as we work through this transition”.
Epps, a former law school dean and provost atTemple, was named to the post in April following the resignation of Jason Wingard, the university’s first Black president, who left in March after leading the 33,600-student university since July 2021.
Kaiser said Epps started out working at Temple’s bookstore 40 years ago and dedicated herself to improving the university.
In an interview in April with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Epps vowed to focus on improving enrollment and safety, which had been hit by spiraling crime near the north Philadelphia campus during her predecessor’s tumultuous tenure. The newspaper reported enrollment had dropped by 14% since 2019. Epps said she believed she was selected in part for her “ability to sort of calm waters”.
“I am obviously humbled and excited and really looking forward to being able to make a contribution to the university that I so love,” Epps told the newspaper. She said she would not be a candidate for the permanent position.
The Temple Association of University Professionals labor union recalled Epps’s personal touch.
“I remember her walking into my office this April, and chatting with me one-on-one about how we could work together to make Temple a better place,” Jeffrey Doshna, the union president, said in a statement.
Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, called her loss “heartbreaking for Philadelphia” and saying she had been “a powerful force and constant ambassador for Temple University for nearly four decades”.
Kaiser recalled leaving the office when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and Temple was shutting down.
“It was our last day in the office, we were together and I said, ‘OK, I’ll see you in a couple weeks,’ and I didn’t really see her for two years,” Kaiser said.
He later told her that if he had known they wouldn’t see each other for two years, he would have given her a hug.