Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

Peter Copek Papers, 1966-2001

Biographical Note:

Peter J. Copek was born in 1945 in Chicago, Illinois, where he was also raised and educated. He completed his primary schooling at St. Ignatius Prep before moving on to Loyola University of Chicago, where he majored in English, completing his B.S. in 1967. That same year, Copek won first place in the National Jesuit Intercollegiate Essay Contest for his piece "Herzog: A Modern Synthesis."

Copek continued his schooling at Northwestern University, receiving two degrees in English - an M.A. in 1969 and a Ph.D. in 1973. Copek earned several awards and fellowships during his graduate years, including an International Summer Scholarship, which allowed him to study at the University of London for three months. His doctoral dissertation, "The 'Five Towns' Novels of Arnold Bennett: A Response to Industrial Society," was indicative of a research topic that would interest him for the remainder of his career: British literary figures of the industrial age.

Copek was hired by Oregon State University in 1972 - one year prior to his completion of his Northwestern doctorate - as an Assistant Professor of English. From the outset, his teaching and scholarship were reflective of his doctoral studies in British literature, but very quickly also came to subsume his interest in film studies. In 1977 he co-founded the OSU International Film Series which, over a period of more than two decades, screened independent and foreign films for the public every weekend during the academic term. He likewise developed new courses focusing on various aspects of the cinema, including a popular class on film comedy and another on Charlie Chaplin.

Copek was also broadly interested in the advancement of the humanities, and it is in this capacity that he found his niche at Oregon State. In 1977 Copek helped to write a successful five-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant, from which was born the Humanities Development Program. The initiative, which was administered by Copek, focused primarily upon interdisciplinary instructional development. The 1977 grant also led to the creation of three certificate programs - including the Twentieth Century Studies curriculum, coordinated by Copek - and to the purchase of nearly 10,000 books for circulation by the OSU Libraries.

In 1984 Copek co-authored a second NEH proposal, this time a challenge grant seeking $700,000 in federal funds to be awarded on the condition that OSU raise a private match of $2.1 million. The university accomplished this task and a key outcome of the new inflow of funds was the endowment of a permanent OSU Center for the Humanities, which took the place of the Humanities Development Program. Peter Copek served as the first director of OSU's Center for the Humanities and remained in that role until his death in 2001. Though he remained a member of the English department and continued to carry a full teaching load, administration and fund raising for the center so came to dominate Copek's professional time that he often referred to himself, with tongue in cheek, as a "businessman of letters."

Under Copek's leadership, the primary mission of the Center for the Humanities was to nurture research through the provision of support for an annual collection of both internal fellows - selected from a pool of OSU applicants - as well as external fellows who would travel to Corvallis from posts all around the world. The center - which received a permanent home on the OSU campus, the Autzen House, in 1990 - supported research productivity by funding leave time for internal fellows as well as travel and lodging for visiting scholars. The center also served as a hub for the exchange of ideas through the presentation of working papers required of its fellows. The center likewise used its endowment earnings to sponsor a variety of campus events, including a conference marking the bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, a Mozart festival, and a visit to Corvallis from the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

As the OSU Center for the Humanities advanced, Copek's reputation grew; he was frequently asked to consult on similar projects around the country and to speak on the development of humanities centers as they became more popular within academia. So too was Copek's insight regularly sought internally; throughout his OSU career he served on a number of committees within the College of Liberal Arts and elsewhere. Copek also continually proved himself to be an able fundraiser, leading or contributing to efforts that raised over $4.1 million combined in grants and donations, mostly in support of the Center for the Humanities.

Copek suffered from a series of health problems for much of his life and on June 13, 2001, he died of a heart attack that struck in the immediate aftermath of gall bladder surgery. He was 56 years old. In his honor, the Center for the Humanities renamed its reception space the Peter J. Copek Room and also created a Peter J. Copek Fund, meant to support future cultural offerings on the OSU campus.


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