URBANA — John Kevin Newman of Urbana died on Sunday (July 26, 2020) at the age of 91.
Kevin was the only son of Willie and Agnes (Shee) Newman, and brother of Sheila Newman, who died in 2018. He is survived by his wife, Frances, and his children, Alexandra, John (Julie) and Victoria.
Kevin was born on Aug. 17, 1928, in the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England. His early years were marked by the Great Depression, followed in 1939 by the Second World War.
Industrial pollution from the city’s woolen mills was exacerbated during the war by factory conversion to production of ammunition. Often off school due to bronchial asthma, Kevin, a voracious learner from an early age, took the opportunity to read ahead in his textbooks.
In 1939, he entered St. Bede’s Grammar School, Bradford, where Latin was compulsory. Though Greek was no longer taught, when his Latin master spent two weeks introducing the rudiments of the language, Kevin realized that his future rested in the study of the classics. He received permission from his headmaster to replace history with ancient Greek, acting as his own tutor.
Post World War II, Kevin was awarded a state scholarship entitling him to six years of free university tuition. After sitting the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination, he was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford, with the title of senior scholar. There he studied literae humaniores (Latin and Greek literature, Greek and Roman history, and philosophy) from 1946 to 1950, and subsequently Russian and Old Slavonic (1950-1952). He was always pleased to recall Aristotle’s claim that poetry is more serious and philosophical than history.
After leaving the university, he found a position at Downside School, Somerset, where he remained for 14 years teaching, with some success, Latin and Greek to what was called Group 1, the Upper Sixth Form. In 1967, still at Downside, he was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol. What had started out as his dissertation was speedily published under the title of "Augustus and the New Poetry" (pp. 458), and was welcomed by important critics.
But he realized that in order to continue with his researches he needed both time and access to better resources. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, famous for its library, offered him a position in its Classics Department, and he gratefully took that offer up in September 1969. It was at this time that he first met Frances, and their marriage followed in September 1970.
During his tenure of 31 years at Illinois, Professor Newman published a number of substantial works, among them "The Classical Epic Tradition" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1986, pp. 566), a discussion of narrative fiction from Homer to Thomas Mann. This work was selected as an “outstanding book in its field” by Choice, 1986. Books on Latin poets of the first century B.C., notably on Catullus, Horace, Virgil and Propertius, were supplemented by scholarly articles on these and other poets of the classical period.
His love for the Greek language remained. He published works on Pindar, a Greek poet of the fifth century B.C., and Hellenistic poets including Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius. His familiarity with Koine Greek enabled him to conclude each day by translating at sight, with his wife, a chapter of the Greek New Testament.
Major translations from Latin included both a lengthy poem by a 16th-century Latin poet (Lelio Guidiccioni), and the Latin lecture notes of the 18th-century Swiss geologist de Saussure. The work on de Saussure in collaboration with his colleague, A. V. Carozzi, resulted in two books and a lengthy article.
His brilliance in composing Latin verses — poems in hexameters, elegiacs and intricate Horatian meters — was recognized. Four times (1960, 1963, 1966, and 1998) the Consilium Latinitati Excolendae awarded him silver medals for his original Latin poems: On one such occasion Pope (now Saint) Paul VI presented him with his diploma at the Vatican. By invitation, he also contributed many Latin pieces, both in poetry and prose, to the Vatican periodical Latinitas, as well as to other publications.
For five years (1982–86), he successfully edited Illinois Classical Studies, and it was under his aegis that the journal moved to computerized production. Around the same time, for four years he served as chairman of the Department of the Classics. Over his career, he published more than one hundred articles and reviews on Latin, Greek and Russian authors, as well as other subjects of interest, including comparative literature and art. He was always intrigued by the relationships and evolution of literary traditions bridging centuries and civilizations.
Kevin had a clear set of priorities: “Put first things first and everything else will follow.”
Above all, he was a devout Christian. Shortly after his birth, he had been baptized in St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Bradford. He never wavered from this allegiance, and even at the end of his ninth decade he could be seen walking across to St. John’s Chapel for the daily noon Mass.
His family came next. He was the beloved husband of Frances Stickney Newman for nearly 50 years. He taught his children, Alexandra, John and Victoria, by example, encouraging them in their studies and emphasizing the value of learning. By always leaving the door to his study open, he let them know that he was never too busy to listen to them.
Kevin taught for 48 years and remained a scholar to the end. He was excited by his work, he was disciplined, he was creative. He took his researches seriously and, with his wife, frequently traveled to Italy to explore archaeological sites and visit and revisit the country’s extraordinary museums.
He was skeptical of things which “couldn’t be done,” arguing that researchers should begin by asking about — and then doing — what couldn’t be done as a way of clearing the air. He always stressed the importance of reading texts carefully, and before embarking on any new venture, he read and reread the author, committing much to memory. His quest was always to discover what the author was trying to say and why; he was never without a next project or another thesis to interrogate.
His last two published works, an article and monograph on Catullus, appeared in 2018, the former in Italy and the latter in Germany. At the time of his death, he left an unfinished manuscript of over 350 pages on St. John Chrysostom, a Greek Church Father of the fourth to fifth centuries.
Requiescat in pace!
A private funeral Mass will take place at St. John's Catholic Newman Center, and he will be buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Champaign.
Condolences may be offered at www.owensfuneralhomes.com.