John P. Karras, professor of history, 1932–2016

karras_dsc_9913WHEN I ARRIVED at the college as a rookie teacher in 1975, John Karras was chair of the History Department. He was a formidable presence — tall, bald, and heavy-set, loud and opinionated, full of humor, a born raconteur. The son of Greek immigrants, he blazed his own trail and disdained conventional gentility. He did not defer to anyone.

A specialist on the ancient Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire, Karras viewed history through a wide-angle lens. He prodded colleagues to become world historians who could think comparatively about civilizations and study global interactions over time. He and his wife, Ann, traveled to distant corners of Eurasia in the summertime, and he expertly narrated slide shows when they returned.
Those who worked with Karras had an esprit de corps and knew they were part of his team. The department’s windowless suite in the bowels of Forcina Hall hosted endless reminiscences, tall tales, and general hilarity, with Karras dependably in the center of the scrum.

Above all, Karras had an impact on his students.

“I took two semesters of Greek history with the hardest teacher at the college,” says Rose Mary Sheldon ’69, now a historian at Virginia Military Institute. “He put us over the hurdles; we thought nothing was ever good enough for him. But he was fair and very, very funny. He taught me everything I know about excellence in teaching.”

“It changed my life,” says Meghan DiLuzio,’04, who enrolled in Karras’ Roman Empire course her freshman year and now teaches classics at Baylor University. Her husband, Joseph DiLuzio ’00, also a Baylor classicist, paid Karras the same tribute that Pericles gave to fallen Athenians, “graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”

Just after I heard the news of John’s death, a handsome hawk slammed into a window near where I sat. Momentarily stunned, the bird stared at me with haughty disbelief, then flew up to a high branch before soaring away. And so, John’s spirit took wing.

—Daniel Crofts, professor emeritus

5 Responses to John P. Karras, professor of history, 1932–2016

  1. One of those professors who made a lasting impression. He was unique, irreverent but respectful….I am fortunate to have been influenced by not only Prof. Karras but also by his talented and scholarly colleagues of the History Dpt.
    Over forty years later, his presence is with me ….What a character…as the Irish say, “We will never see his likes again”

  2. My first introduction to Prof. Karras was his comment on the first day of class that in order to receive an “A” on any paper written for him he must be convinced that your eyes bled when researching it. I wasn’t quite sure at that time if he was kidding but after taking several of his courses it was obvious he was not. Nevertheless, I thought him to be one of the finest teachers I ever had and I knew my History degree at TCNJ was well earned.

  3. I remember my first history class with Professor Karras being World History 1. When I turned in my first paper, I thought I did well. When I received it, I felt like my face wanted to fall off when I saw that C. Professor Karras was brutal and was EXTREMELY select when giving A’s. It took me years to perfect my writing, but it felt beyond accomplishing after getting an A in the last two classes I took with him.

    Prof. Karras had an enjoyable presence to be around and was always helpful to his students. Out of everyone in college, his teachings still affect me to this day, and I am in the business world. Karras will be sorely missed by all.

  4. I spent many an hour discussing History and life, world events,and listening to Professor Karras’ stories. He and his assembled band in the department, motivated and guided my direction. He gave me Thucydides, the Byzantine Empire – the outlines of the forces and tools for knowledge and warning. It was all there. He was a blessing and remains so. Thank you for penning this, Professor Crofts.’
    Many of the things I know about teaching others and working to elucidate events past and presemt, as well as the team work I enjoy the most, began there in Forcina Hall during those sessions with Karras.

  5. Whenever I told a staff or faculty member at the college that I was a history major, the common refrain was “Don’t let Karras intimidate you”. He had such a tough exterior, but it was clear that he cared about his students. Even though I only took one class with him, Professor Karras always took the time to check in and see how I was doing throughout my four years at TSC. One day, I was standing in the Forcina History Department Office, waiting for another professor. Professor Karras saw me and yelled “Tartaro, what are you doing with your life? Get in my office!” He was so helpful, and he believed in my academic abilities at a time when I had little confidence in myself. I am now a professor, and I tell my students stories about Professor Karras. I am so grateful that I have an opportunity to take a class with him and be a student in the department while he was chair.

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