A colleague reflects on former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars

In September 2020, the VCU Board of Visitors passed a resolution to recognize former VCUarts dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., by naming a School of the Arts building on West Broad Street in his honor. The longtime educator, who died in 2008, oversaw a period of tremendous growth as dean of VCUarts from 1976-95, and elevated the school’s national reputation.

DePillars was known among his colleagues—both within and outside VCUarts—as a gracious leader and a larger-than-life presence who was deeply focused on supporting students.

Napoleon Peoples, Ph.D., was one of those colleagues. Peoples retired in 2015 as associate dean of student affairs for VCU’s MCV Campus, but got his start in 1970 as a counselor in University Counseling Services. He was aware of DePillars as an artist, and sought him out once DePillars arrived at VCU.

Peoples, who was early in his career, often looked to DePillars as a model to emulate. Peoples says his own approach as an administrator was shaped by his observations of DePillars as a dean and serving on university committees.

Here, Peoples describes his professional relationship with DePillars, and how the former dean supported his colleagues at VCU.

How did you first meet Dr. DePillars?
I had heard about him when I was in graduate school. He was in Chicago at that time. He was creating some serious art and painting, and I heard about it. When he got to the university, I said, “Oh, that’s Murry DePillars. Let me introduce myself to him.” From that point, we continued to be friends throughout my career.

Although we didn’t work in the same division, or department, or school, I had a great relationship with him. I was working in University Counseling Services, and his building was right behind my building. So, during the course of the day, sometimes I would run into him. Once I got to know him better, I would go over to his office and sit and talk with him, or go by his house, where we would listen to jazz and discuss African and African-American art and that was good! He always gave insight to me as a young guy just starting out in my profession.

What did you learn from him that you applied to your own career?
Being a young professional, he really impressed me. I liked his style. I would think, “I like the way he handled that,” or “I like the way he came into a meeting and dealt with this in his own way.” He was very intentional, he was a clear thinker, he was articulate, and he was thorough.

One thing that really stuck: Murry worked a lot. He put in a lot of hours. I said to myself, to be successful, and to do a good job, I also need to put in the hours, put in the time, do the work. It was clear that if you’re going to do anything significant, you have to be willing to commit the time.

Tell me about his involvement with the Black Education Association.
In my early years, a small group of us were building the Black Education Association for Black faculty and staff. Murry attended some of those meetings and when he came, it was significant and helpful. His perspective on collaboration and working together and coming together to make Virginia Commonwealth University a more equitable place for everyone was very positive.

How would you describe his legacy?
I think of him as being a strong leader, as being a change agent, as showing initiative and being creative and willing to take a chance to make things better at VCU.

He also had a vision for his school. He brought in new programs, new ideas, new thoughts. His student engagement was really exceptional; being a dean, he took time to work with students. He made them feel welcome. He assembled a dynamic faculty and brought in some solid scholars and professionals, like [jazz professor] Ellis Marsalis. He created an environment that was thriving and growing, progressing, dynamic, and fluid, and people were enthusiastic about it.

Image courtesy Mary DePillars, wife of Murry DePillars.