COLUMBIA - Devoted husband, cherished father and friend, and beloved teacher, Harold Wendell French passed from this life on July 10, 2014, with his family by his side. Hal was 84. A native of Kansas, he was son of Ernest and Margaret Mason French.
Dr. French’s first career was in the ministry, serving Methodist churches in Kansas and Massachusetts, and at Westmar College in Iowa as Chaplain. He began full-time teaching at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina and has taught at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Religious Studies since 1972. He retired formally as Department Chair in 1995. But the pull of the classroom was too strong, and he continued teaching part-time in what he called his “failed retirement!” At the same time, he was involved in different service projects nationally and internationally. His lifelong passion for teaching and service opened generations of college students to cultural and religious understandings and to their own potential as bridge builders. He received numerous recognitions from the University of South Carolina and South Carolina Honors College, including Mortar Board awards for Excellence in Teaching and the university’s distinguished Teacher of the Year Award.
Dr. French authored four books and edited five others. He was an editor of the recently published eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism. His book, Zen and the Art of Anything, was published in three editions and was listed as one of the fifty best spiritual books of the year in 2001 by the journal Spirituality and Health. He published numerous articles and reviews. Dr. French lectured widely at different universities, including a semester at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. In recent years he conducted workshops at the Esalen Institute in California, the Chautauqua Institution in New York, and the Ammerdown Centre in England.
Since his primary research area was Asian religions, Hal frequently led study abroad trips, including the University of Pittsburg Semester at Sea program to eleven countries, as well as trips to Greece, India, Turkey, Japan, England, Vietnam and Cambodia through the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. He was also involved with service projects in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, Habitat for Humanity programs and other service learning initiatives with students. These trips often found Hal in unusual circumstances such as the time he was mudding the walls of a destroyed orphanage in India in 110-degree heat!
Dialogue with other religious traditions was a vital part of his professional and personal life. Dr. French’s professional activities have included presentations and offices held in the American Academy of Religion, The Association for Asian Studies and interfaith associations such as The North American Interfaith Network, The International Interfaith Centre in Oxford, England, The World Congress of Faiths, Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and the World Parliament of Religions. Since 2011 he has been Chair of the U.S. Chapter of the International Association for Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest international interfaith organization.
Hal was active in the Democratic Party and sang with the Columbia Choral Society for many years, serving on the Board and as President. He was currently President Elect of the Golden K Kiwanis Club. He was a member of Shandon United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia.
Hal is survived by his loving family, including his wife of 31 years, Elizabeth Randylyn French, “Rannie,” his three children: Stephen Alan French (Nancy) of Denver, Colorado, Mark Philip French (Candi) of Pelion, South Carolina, and Rebecca Lynn Nelson of Peabody, Kansas, three stepdaughters: Jennifer Miller Van Fossen (Eric), Julia Miller Saxon (Joel), Anna Miller Tartak (Jochen). He was equally blessed by his cherished grandchildren: Daniel and Joanna French of Denver, Colorado, Jason French of Pelion, South Carolina, Lily and Alexander Van Fossen and Kate and Caroline Saxon of Atlanta, Georgia, and Lucas and Jackson Tartak of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hal loved his family as well as his relationships with the entire university community. While he relished teaching, he also loved learning from his students. Hal brought light to the lives of those he touched, and he will be remembered for his Zen-like approach to life, his passion for teaching, his unique sense of humor, his gentle spirit, and his remarkable knowledge of many subjects.
A memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at Shandon United Methodist Church. The family will receive friends immediately following the service in Player Hall. Dunbar Funeral Home, Devine Street Chapel, is assisting the family. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the University of South Carolina Honors College or the Department of Religious Studies, or the outreach missions of Shandon United Methodist Church, The Unitarian Universalist Congregation, or the charity of one’s choice.