Elon mourns passing of Professor Emeritus Jim Pickens

A longtime faculty member who gave "voice to the voiceless," Pickens died on Feb. 3, 2012.

Professor Jim Pickens, who retired from the Elon University faculty in 2007, was well known for his trademark straw hat and long hair.


Professor Emeritus Jim Pickens, a voice for peace and social justice who retired from the Elon University faculty in 2007 after a distinguished career here for more than two decades, died Feb. 3, 2012.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington, N.C.

Pickens served as advisor or co-advisor to Students for Peace and Justice throughout his Elon tenure, talking with students, bringing speakers to campus and providing direction to the organization. He served as coordinator of an NEH grant for Peace and Justice Studies, which evolved into the current Non-violence Studies minor. He taught courses on the psychology of non-violence and the psychology of American protest music.

Pickens traveled to Nicaragua and Guatemala as part of Witness for Peace trips, raising awareness about the United States’ role in injustice and inequality in Central America. He had been an active member of North Carolina Peace Action, the state branch of the nation’s largest peace organization.

Locally, Pickens led Alamance Peacemakers, volunteered as a mediator and assistant trainer at the Dispute Settlement Center and ministered to the homeless at a local shelter. He taught English as a second language through Alamance Community College, worked with the Boy Scouts, coached youth soccer teams and was active in his church, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church.

For his efforts, in 2007 on the eve of his retirement, Pickens received the Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility, presented each year to a member of Elon’s faculty or staff whose service to the broader community exemplifies the ideals of Project Pericles.

The following is a tribute from Jeffrey C. Pugh, Elon University’s Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies and a close friend of Pickens:

“One of the first people I met at Elon was Jim Pickens. We bonded immediately over our love for musician Bruce Cockburn and the fact that we had escaped our first teaching positions in East Tennessee relatively intact. He was one of the first people to truly befriend me at Elon and our talks on the third floor of Mooney my first year revealed a passionate, caring and genuine human being.

Jim Pickens died Feb. 3, 2012.

“He could also be sarcastic and irritating, but honest people can be that way. They say things we don’t want to hear, tell us truths we would rather ignore, and ask us what we are going to do about the truths just delivered. That may be the reason why we continued to bond over nights spent in the homeless shelter in Burlington. I probably wouldn’t have been there without Jim’s gentle prodding. Many of us were provoked by him and sometimes it rubbed us the wrong way, but prophets do that.

“His passion for the world, his love of the disenfranchised, his commitment to change, all emerged from his deep sense of faith, a faith that was the result of a long and sometimes difficult journey. The sight of his panama hats, wiry mustache, and long hair was comforting for many of us at Elon; it signaled that a presence, a conscience who would keep us honest, was among us. He has been gone from our community for a while now, but there are countless students and colleagues who were inspired by him.

“He pulled not a few to rallies in Washington, D.C., or Fort Benning, Ga., or to villages in Honduras and Nicaragua to fight for the poor. He sought to give a voice to the voiceless and now that voice, slowly ebbing for some time, is gone. I am grateful for Jim Pickens and what he meant not only to Elon, but to my life. We should all be thankful for his witness. He was, in the words of Bruce Cockburn a ‘lover in a dangerous time.’ I know he loved Elon and I think we are a better place for his having been a part of us.”

From Amanda Kloer ’05, Director of Organizing for Human Rights at Change.org:

“Professor Pickens was the adviser for Students for Peace and Justice while I was the president of that group in 2003 and 2004, and he took me to Guatemala to build houses for Habitat for Humanity the following January. He also took me to my first ever protest – a protest against the Iraq war in Washington, D.C. I was so inspired by his passion and energy for social justice, and his influence has stayed with me my whole life. It was a life-changing experience.

“Today I live in D.C, and I’m the Director of Organizing for Human Rights at Change.org, the world’s fastest growing social action platform. I help people around the world run campaigns to address critical human rights issues in their communities. Professor Pickens taught me about the importance of putting power in the hands of the people, not the politicians. Now, every day I follow that advise and work toward a more peaceful, more just world in which everyone has the power of social change.

“Professor Pickens had a profound impact on my life and has helped shaped the person I am today and my mission to empower people to fight for human rights. I am so thankful to have known him during my time and Elon, and will be thinking about and praying for his family and friends as they say goodbye to a wonderful person.”

From Pranab Das, professor of physics at Elon University and executive editor of the ISSR Library:

“Jim Pickens was one of the senior faculty whom I admired and strove to emulate in my early years at Elon. His ready camaraderie and easy laugh were iconic of the Elon community that I found myself so happy to have joined. But Jim was also an iconoclast, armed with an excellent “b.s.” detector and willing to put himself and his opinions on the line. As a student and practitioner of activism, he reminded us all that words and expression matter, and that silence readily passes for assent.

“I’ve missed him in the years since he faded and wonder what cogent, biting, and funny observations he would have had to offer of the tumultuous times we’ve all gone through. Here’s hoping that his many admiring students will follow the model of that excellent and dedicated mentor.”

From L.D. Russell, lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies:

“The Elon community suffered a true loss today. Jim Pickens, professor of psychology, hipster extraordinaire, and a goodhearted man, passed away after a long illness. When I first came to Elon almost two decades ago, unsure of myself in a challenging new environment, he was among the first to befriend me, and I will always be grateful for his welcoming spirit.

“A conversation with Jim was always an adventure, wandering from tale to tale with never an end in sight, the destination not the point but only the joy of the journey. A working class hero, he stood for the good and the right, however unpopular such stances might be, challenged his students and colleagues to do the same, and left a legacy of truth-seeking with a sense of humor that will long outlive him. Rest well, dear friend. Peace be unto you and your loved ones.”

From The Rev. Richard McBride, Elon University Chaplain Emeritus:

“Jim and I twice led the January term service learning course with Habitat para la Humanidad Guatemala. Each year, in our nightly reflections, Jim would teach our group to sing:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.
And by union what we will can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

“Jim wanted us to experience solidarity with the families we were there to help. Today, I can hear his voice singing that mine workers song. Presente!, my friend.”

From Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University:

“Jim Pickens was an exemplary global citizen. We could all do well do live our lives as he lived his: with passion, conviction, and unwavering courage.

“Jim and I shared a love of (addiction to?) coffee, and I always knew that I could find a fresh brewed cup in his office. My frequent visits to his cluttered space always led to engaging discussions about a wide range of topics. In these early years at Elon, Jim and I would talk often about both local and global issues, and I credit him with giving me my first look at an engaged global citizen. He lived the statement that ‘all lives – no mater where they are being lived – have equal value,’ and as Director of Project Pericles at Elon it was my high privilege to witness him receiving the Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility in 2007.

“Jim lives in my heart and in the hearts and minds of the many colleagues and students who knew him.”

Faculty, staff and alumni who wish to offer their own tributes in honor of Pickens are encouraged to email Eric Townsend, director of the Elon University News Bureau, at etownsend4@elon.edu. This post will be updated periodically over the next week with submitted reflections.