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Lachs, Centennial Professor Emeritus and beloved instructor for a half-century, has died

Posted by on Wednesday, November 29, 2023 in News Story.

John Lachs, professor emeritus of philosophy and Centennial Professor Emeritus, died November 14 in Nashville. He was 89.

man sitting at desk smilingLachs was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1934, and emigrated to Canada as a child. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a master’s degree in 1957 from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1961 and joined Vanderbilt’s faculty in 1967. He retired in 2021 after teaching for more than a half-century at Vanderbilt, including more than 10,000 Vanderbilt students who enrolled in his highly popular Introduction to Ethics course. The lecture was a perennial favorite, with multiple generations of students attending.

His commitment to students and his engaging, approachable style created an enduring passion for ethics among many. His dedication extended beyond the lecture hall. He was the first reader on 72 graduate student dissertations, an extraordinary number for any faculty member.

Lachs received the Vanderbilt Alumni Education Award twice for his significant contributions to educational man standing in front of smiling studentsprogramming as a speaker for Reunion and other alumni events. He was also awarded the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

“John Lachs was an incredible teacher and mentor for generations of Vanderbilt students,” said Karen Ng, associate professor of philosophy and interim department chair. “I still meet people around Nashville who report their unforgettable experience taking his Introduction to Ethics course. When I first arrived at Vanderbilt, John served as my mentor. I was incredibly fortunate to have his guidance, and couldn’t have asked for a better person to introduce me to this community.”

“When we are called to make momentous choices or to reconcile ourselves to sadness, loss, and death, thinking through the magnificence of existence may refocus or even rekindle our vitality. Taking delight in small achievements and in the flowering of energy everywhere can help us face the dark side of life with courage and peace.”

— John Lachs, In Love with Life: Reflections on the Joy of Living and Why We Hate to Die

Lachs was an exceptional colleague, willing to guide and mentor new faculty, helping them in their transition at Vanderbilt.

“I joined the Vanderbilt philosophy department in 2001 as an assistant professor on the tenure track,” said Robert Talisse, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy. “I was fresh out of my Ph.D. program, and, looking back, didn’t know much about how academia works. John Lachs was assigned to be my departmental faculty mentor. He told me at our first meeting that he saw it as his role to ‘help you get promoted until you’re a full professor.’  He did a splendid job. But more importantly, John was a perpetual source of guidance, support, wisdom, and enthusiasm with respect to my career and research. My decade as department chair was far more successful than it otherwise would have been, thanks to John’s good sense and generosity. He is already very deeply missed.”

John is preceded in death by his wife of 49 years, Shirley, and survived by his two children, Sheila Marie and James Richard. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. December 16 at Benton Chapel on the Vanderbilt University campus. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the animal rescue organization of your choice or to the John Lachs Ethics Research and Engagement Fund at Vanderbilt University.

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