Word that University of South Carolina religion professor Hal W. French had died first started circulating on social media, and by Friday afternoon, a torrent of praise washed over the campus for a “kind and gentle” man who changed students’ lives through his inspired teaching.
French joined the University of South Carolina in 1972. Although he retired as chairman of the Religious Studies Department in 1995, French continued to teach classes, and in August saw the publication of the 11 volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, a project that he had worked on for 25 years.
“He embodied the best in the scholar-teacher model,” Bobby Donaldson, faculty principal of Preston Residential College at USC, wrote in announcing French’s passing in an email. French had been very active with the Preston community by designing programs for the residents, officiating at several weddings and helping students move in every fall.
“He told me once that he had flunked retirement,” friend and colleague of 40 years Carl Evans said.
“Thousands of students were inspired and indeed changed by his wisdom, his boundless energy, his cheerful humor, his unstinting devotion to diversity and inclusion, and his deep concern for the well-being of others,” Donaldson wrote.
These positive views of Hal French are also reflected in comments students made about him on the online teacher rating website RateMyProfessor, where incivility can rule the day.
“He is passionate about religious diversity and is just full of interesting stories”; “Dr. French stirs our senses, calls Divinity to the Red Carpet; makes the All prevailing Will known by asserting our own freedom of choice. A true modern day Zen Master”; and, “Do not take for easy credit” were some of the comments visible on the site Friday.
While all who knew him said he found his calling, French started his professional career as a minister of the evangelical United Brethren Church and chaplain at a college in Iowa in the ‘60s.
In the chaplaincy, he was introduced to new ideas and he decided to pursue advanced degrees with a focus on religion in modern India, Evans, said.
“He valued all religions. The lines that separate one religion from another did not exist with Hal,” Evans said.
French taught a wide range of religion courses at the university from entry level Introduction to Religious Studies and Intro to Hinduism to higher level seminars such as Zen and the Art of Anything (also the title of his critically acclaimed book published in 1999) and The Spiritual Journal of Herman Hesse. He taught 18 classes at the Honors College and four at the S.C. state prison. He was scheduled to teach a course at the Honors College this Fall, Evans said.
French collapsed and died Friday as he arrived for a checkup at his cardiologist’s office. He was 84-years-old.
French had been recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery, Evans said.
He is survived by his wife, Rannie French, and three children, Steve (in Colorado), Mark (in S.C.), and Rebecca (in Kansas.)