A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Thomas More College ‘legend,’ artist Darrell Brothers; art still hangs around campus

By Raymond Hebert
Special to NKyTribune

Part 20 of out Series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

Darrell Brothers was a talented, well-respected artist in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area who taught at Thomas More College from 1966 until 1993. He was Chairman of the Department of Art on several occasions, including between 1967 and 1975, and then again between 1987 and 1993.

Darrell Brothers. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

Darrell Brothers’ expertise included painting, drawing, and printmaking. He received multiple grants funded under the U.S. Department of Education Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965. His grants of 1978, 1979, and 1980 were under the program entitled Advanced Institutional Developing Program (AIDP), while his 1983 grant was part of the Strengthening Developing Institutions Program (SDIP). Darrell, and a number of other Thomas More faculty, received such grants between 1977 and 1983 to help them improve classes already being taught as well as to develop new ones (Darrell Brothers CV, TMU Archives).

Darrell Brothers was trained at Ball State University (B.S., 1953) with two Masters degrees from Indiana University in Bloomington (M.A.T. 1956, M.F.A. 1959) and a special training at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, in printmaking in 1961. Prior to his arrival at VMC/TMC, he taught in both the Hamilton, Ohio Public Schools and the Cincinnati, Ohio Public Schools and part-time at what was then the University of Kentucky Northern Community College from 1959 until 1966 (Darrell Brothers CV, TMU Archives).

As a practicing artist, Darrell (whose wife Betty was an Art Department Professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio) served as a juror for many Art competitions. He conducted many workshops in the Tri-state area in graphics and printmaking, and received awards in twenty-one juried exhibitions over the years, mostly between 1958 and 1969. He had twenty-four one-man exhibitions and was invited to join twelve invitational group exhibitions. In addition, he exhibited in seventy-three juried shows after 1958, again mostly before 1969.

After arriving at Villa Madonna College/Thomas More College, Brothers’ primary focus changed in the late 1960’s to the teaching and the training of young artists and the creation of a credible, well-respected art major program. In Darrell’s words: “The Art Department has increased its majors [and] the scholarship grants seem to have contributed significantly to our increased art major enrollment in the last four years” (Letter to Administration about the “State of the Art Department” on April 18, 1991, TMU Archives).

Darrell Brothers’ Painting in Thomas More’s Saints Center. Dr. Rebecca Bilbo, Chair of Thomas More University Art Department, refers to this painting as a “Tribute to Piera della Francesca.” (Thomas More University Archives)

Along the way, particularly in his capacity as Chairman of the Art Department and Supervisor of the Thomas More College Art Gallery, Darrell is remembered above all for one of the epic promotion and tenure disagreements in the history of Thomas More College. Like most institutions at the post-secondary level of education, it is not unusual for academic freedom issues to emerge from time to time. On several occasions in the 1970s, related to Art Department exhibitions, there were disagreements that raised concerns about censorship at Thomas More College, first with the presence of Evergreen Magazine in the library’s Reading Room area and the other with a “student Art Exhibit with some nude paintings in the TMC Library and Gallery Area outside of the Library.” Academic Dean James Ebben laid out the issue well in his memo to President Richard De Graff on December 20, 1972. First, he quoted Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in Hannegan vs. Esquire, Inc. (1946):

“What is good literature, what has educational value, what is refined public information, what is good art varies with individuals, as it does from one generation to another… What seems to be trash may have for others fleeting or even enduring values” (Dean James Ebben Memo, December 20, 1972, TMU Archives).

Later in the same memo, Dean Ebben reminded President De Graff of the dangers that could follow the removal of any nude paintings from the Senior Art Exhibition. He brought up two key points: 1) based on his interpretation of the principles of subsidiarity formulated in the Encyclicals of Pius XI and John XXIII, which cautioned against: “warnings against interference by higher administrative authorities in areas where subsidiary individuals or organizations enjoy competence” and 2) based on the issue simply of an individual’s complaint about that which one finds morally offensive, “if we act to stamp out that which as amoral, that individuals may find offensive, we do so at the risk of vitiating the principles of free inquiry by which the academic community must operate” (Dean Ebben Memo, TMU Archives, pp. 3-4).

Darrell Brothers. (Thomas More University Archives)

For a time, the issue remained in the air around campus as other disagreements surfaced and disappeared, but it returned with vigor intertwined with Darrell Brothers’ application for Full Professor in the following year of 1974. Despite the internal support of the Rank and Promotion Committee and Academic Dean (Ebben), it was in a letter dated May 24, 1974, from President Richard De Graff (with a cc to Bishop Richard Ackerman) that Darrell Brothers was told of the denial of his promotion by the Thomas More Board of Trustees. It read:

“it was the over-riding feeling of the Board that you have not advanced the Catholic objectives of Thomas More College. They justified their position on the preponderance of nude art which has been exhibited in the students’ exhibition for the past several years. It was the position of the Trustees that examples presented in the various displays were not in keeping with their concept of the morality at a Catholic institution” (Letter from President De Graff to Darrell Brothers, May 24, 1974, TMU Archives).

Darrell Brothers responded strongly on May 29, emphasizing that he “was judged without inviting facts, defense or response,” while asking instead for “a fair and just decision.” (Darrell Brothers’ Letter to President De Graff, May 29, 1974, TMU Archives). He promised that an appeal would follow.

On August 19, 1974, Dean James Ebben, in a letter to Fr. Anthony Deye, Chairman of the Trustee Subcommittee on Academic Affairs, defended Darrell Brothers and explained some of the comments in his initial support letter in favor of Mr. Brothers’ promotion. These had been called into question during the Board of Trustees deliberations. One comment focused on the commonly-accepted recognition in academia that, for a Studio Artist an M.F.A. Degree was considered a terminal degree, the equivalent to a PhD in other fields. Dean Ebben concluded that “there was no doubt on anyone’s mind on the Rank and Promotion Committee that he [Darrell Brothers] should be promoted and that he should be strongly recommended for the rank of Professor.” The cc to President De Graff added a sentence in explaining why he had written to Fr. Deye, that it “was simply a reminder that academically Mr. Brothers’ record at the College is as fine as anyone else who has been promoted to the rank of Professor.” (Dean Ebben memos to Fr. Deye and President De Graff on August 19, 1974, TMU Archives)

Cover of funeral service. (Thomas More University Archives)

What is interesting is that in a very terse letter to Darrell Brothers on the next day, August 20, 1974, President De Graff informed him that his petition (and Dean Ebben’s) “for the re-opening of the issue of his promotion to the rank of full professor be denied at this time” (Letter from President De Graff to Darrell Brothers, August 20, 1974, TMU Archives). The matter remained a hot topic throughout the fall semester of 1974, with continued discussions in the Faculty Coordinating Committee (FCC), the Rank and Promotion Committee, and the College’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The president of the latter was Dr. George Menzer, who submitted helpful remarks and observations from a University of Kentucky College of Law professor named Dr. Paul Oberst (Dr. Menzer letter to Dr. Oberst, December 4, 1974, TMU Archives). Fr. Joseph Brink, as the Chairman of the Faculty General Assembly (FGA) and the Faculty Coordinating Committee (FCC), was contacted by Mr. Brothers for more information (TMU Archives, December 5, 1974). In a series of deliberations that followed, the FCC agreed to support Darrell Brothers’ complaint, with a number of individual faculty also speaking up on his behalf. There were multiple support letters in the Archives files.

On January 27, 1975, with the strong support of faculty and of Dean James Ebben, Darrell Brothers submitted a claim to President De Graff that “certain of my rights as a faculty member have been denied me by the Board of Trustees action against my promotion last May” (Darrell Brothers letter of January 27, 1975, TMU Archives). Other memos show that the matter was again discussed by the Board of the Trustees in the spring as it requested that the “Rank and Promotion Committee restudy his case in view of their statements that Mr. Brothers has failed to meet certain responsibilities as outlined in the Faculty Constitution.” This was quoted by Dean Ebben in his memo to President De Graff in which he said that this task had already been done and noted that again the Committee is “still unanimously recommending Mr. Brothers for promotion to the rank of Professor” (Dean Ebben memo to President DeGraff, May 5, 1975, TMU Archives). In its comments, the Faculty Coordinating Committee, responding to the Darrell Brothers’ appeal, reminded President De Graff and the Board of Trustees that “Thomas More College has accepted [into its Faculty Handbook] the principle of academic freedom by virtue of the Trustee endorsement of the AAUP statement on Academic Freedom” (Report from FCC on “The Issues Raised by the Denial of Mr. Darrell Brothers’ Promotion,” Summer, 1975, TMU Archives).

As a personal aside, it was precisely in August 1975 that I arrived for my first year of teaching at Thomas More College. I remembered being surprised that the most important item on the agenda of the Faculty General Assembly in their initial fall meeting was a second unofficial vote of “no confidence” in President Richard DeGraff (with their first vote of “no confidence” having been in 1973). I was very impressed with faculty solidarity in a number of issues that day and especially regarding the Darrell Brothers’ promotion issue. The final letter I will mention is that of Darrell Brothers to Dean James Ebben, thanking him for his support throughout this multi-year ordeal, after his promotion had eventually been approved by the Board of Trustees on November 10, 1975. Darrell said: “The most I can do now is to recognize that you have carried a large burden and to hope that I can be of some support in the future” (Darrell Brothers’ Letter to Dean Ebben, January 17, 1976, TMU Archives).

Holy Family painting by Darrell Brothers, Thomas More University. (Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte)

As noted in a previous article, the vote of no confidence was the beginning of a decline in the presidency of Richard De Graff, who departed from Thomas More College not long afterwards. Darrell Brothers, by contrast, remained as the patriarch of the Art Department for decades, an outstanding teacher, and a fine gentleman until his death in 1993 at the age of 62. I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at his Memorial Service on October 15, 1993, at First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati Ohio. Prior to that occasion, as the Vice President for Academic Affairs, I asked the faculty for input about Darrell since I would be speaking at the funeral as their representative. Here are a few of the responses: 1) “to our college he was brilliant with a tremendous breadth in his knowledge and commitment to teaching. Yet he was the gentle scholar, kind and sensitive. We loved being in his company” (Judy Harris- Education). 2) “Every entrance of his was one of grace and cheerfulness… he was a man of encouragement and celebration of others’ talents and ideas… I admired his dedication to art, to his students and to his family. How fortunate I am to have crossed paths with a person of such integrity, loyalty and friendship” (Patricia Borne- Library). 3) “Darrell Brothers was one of the kindest men it has been my good fortune to know… I always reveled in his good conversation. Truth and beauty were always the themes that evolved, no matter what the actual topic was. Being around him put life into perspective. His very being rekindled my always faltering belief that largeness of soul is our reason for being” (Peg Owens-Nursing).

Finally, in his Kentucky Post obituary of October 5, 1993, Darrell Brothers was praised by several students for the quality of his caring and his teaching. Stephen Mielech, currently a St. Elizabeth Medical Center podiatrist, summarized him well: “Mr. Brothers had an enormous thirst for knowledge in all areas of the arts and sciences. He was warm, generous, and supportive. The profession will miss him. I will miss him. He was a friend as well as my teacher.” In that same article, and in my eulogy, I spoke of him as: “a great teacher, a great artist and a deeply caring person (who) was beloved by his students and peers alike. He was universally respected.”

Many of Darrell Brothers’ paintings have been seen around campus for years, including in the Saints Center, but my favorite has always been and still is his painting in the former college chapel on the 2100 floor in the Administration Building. It depicts the Holy Family, with Jesus Christ as a teenager. In the final analysis, what Thomas More’s Art Program has become owes much to its primary legend, Mr. Darrell Brothers.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment