Retired professor and chair of religion Willard Hamrick dies

william.hamrick.300x175by Kerry King (’85) Wake Forest Magazine

Willard Hamrick, a retired professor and chair of religion well-known for his archaeological fieldwork in the Middle East, died on Jan. 8, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 91.

He is survived by his wife, Shirley (MAEd ’74), a retired associate director of admissions at Wake Forest, and one son, Allen (’83). A funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Jan. 12 at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

Hamrick joined the faculty in 1952 and retired as Albritton Professor of Religion in 1988. An Old Testament scholar, he undertook more than a dozen archaeological excavations at biblical sites in Jordan and Israel, often with students. He was especially adept at identifying ancient coins unearthed at excavation sites.

He was widely respected for his work in the Middle East and for supporting other researchers, said Fred Horton, Albritton Professor Emeritus of the Bible. “He may have been more well-known in Israel and Jordan than in Winston-Salem,” Horton said.

He was always in “teaching mode,” Horton said, whether working with students on a hot excavation site or teaching Hebrew to Horton’s wife. Hamrick also had a great sense of humor, Horton said. “He couldn’t go 30 seconds without telling a joke.”

Horton and Julia M. O’Brien (’81, P ’10), a former student of Hamrick’s, praised his selfless devotion to his students and his “servant ministry of scholarship.” In a book of essays they co-edited in 1995 to honor Hamrick, they wrote that Hamrick was a rare scholar who contributed mightily to the work of others in his field and to advancing biblical scholarship, but never sought attention for his own work.

Hamrick changed her life when she took his Old Testament class as a freshman, O’Brien said. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in religion and is acting dean and the Grace L. Stern Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

“He put so much care in the way he guided your entrance into the Bible itself. He didn’t call attention to himself,” O’Brien said. “I fell in love with the Old Testament because of the way he crafted his course.”

A native of Shelby, N.C., Hamrick served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He received an undergraduate degree in history from the University of North Carolina and his Ph.D. in biblical studies from Duke University. He received a postgraduate research fellowship for study in the Middle East, and was on an archeological “dig” in Israel when he was invited to join the Wake Forest faculty.

As department chair from 1969 to 1981, he expanded what had been a traditionally Baptist-focused curriculum to include courses in other religions. He also started the Hebrew language program and strengthened the graduate program in religion. He was named John Thomas Albritton Chair of the Bible in 1984.