David Kovacs

David Kovacs

Hugh H. Obear Twenty-First Century Distinguished Professor of Classics

Ancient languages captivated David Kovacs ab initio, “from the very beginning,” when he started studying Latin in the ninth grade at the Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio.

“I loved it,” he said. “Latin was neat and logical, and it laid bare what the actual structure of your thought was. It was like a neat toy.” So in the tenth grade, Mr. Kovacs began to teach himself Greek.

He spent his junior and senior years of high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., studying Latin and Greek. He went on to major in philosophy and classics at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and later earned his doctorate in classics at Harvard University. He joined the University of Virginia faculty in 1976.

A specialist in Greek tragedy, Mr. Kovacs is known for his work on Euripides (ca. 480–406 BCE), one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens (along with Aeschylus and Sophocles). In the mid-1990s, Harvard University Press approached him to do new translations of Euripides’ nineteen plays for its prestigious Loeb Classical Library, a well-known series that prints Greek and Latin texts with facing English translations and is regarded as one of the two best series of classical texts in the world (Oxford University Press publishes the other).

But Mr. Kovacs wasn’t satisfied with just doing a new translation. Instead, he approached the project as an opportunity to review the plays word by word to ensure that they conformed to Euripides’ style. Once he had completed an authoritative edition of the text, he then translated and annotated it, and wrote an introductory essay.

John Miller, professor and chair of the University’s Department of Classics, said that Mr. Kovacs’s comprehensive approach to this project distinguishes his work. “Usually for a Loeb edition, the scholar produces a new translation,” he said. “David’s project was monumental, because he produced a new edition of the Greek text as well as translating it into English.” Now standard resources in the field of classics, Mr. Kovacs’s Loeb volumes have been commended by experts, students, and general readers.

But Mr. Kovacs’s achievement didn’t come without a cost. For more than thirty years he labored in libraries and archives. “Being a scholar is a lonely business, particularly in the humanities, where we don’t cooperate a lot,” he said. And after completing the six-volume edition of Euripides in 2002 and three companion volumes in 2003, he felt increasingly disappointed in a lack of recognition by the University.

Then in 2006, Mr. Kovacs was elected to a newly created professorship.

The Hugh H. Obear Twenty-First Century Distinguished Professor of Classics was established through a realized bequest of an outside-held charitable remainder unitrust by Henry N. Obear (Commerce ’33) in memory of his uncle, Hugh H. Obear (Law 1906). Henry N. Obear served as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to his hometown, Winnsboro, South Carolina, where he practiced law and served as town attorney. From 1947 to 1952, he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

The endowed professorship has been a huge asset to the University’s classics department, Mr. Miller said. It fully funded a new faculty position, which not only allowed the department to recognize Mr. Kovacs as a distinguished senior scholar, but also enabled it to hire a new junior scholar to fill Mr. Kovacs’s old position. And like the Basil L. Gildersleeve Professorship in Classics, established in 1991, which allowed the department to expand from six to seven faculty, the Obear gift has allowed it to grow from nine to ten.

“It is no exaggeration to call these gifts transformational for the department,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Kovacs said that receiving the endowed professorship has had a powerful effect on him as well, reenergizing his academic life. “Now I have a large research program, which is well under way, and a number of significant articles in the works,” he said. “The chair put me back on track.”