Milestones: Dennis E. Groh (1939–2023)

Honored Patristics scholar, chaplain, professor, and archaeologist

Dennis and Connie Groh in the rooftop restaurant of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem in 2015. Courtesy Connie Groh.

Dennis (Denny) Groh died on April 22, 2023, at age 83. He was a great scholar and a great friend, as illustrated by a memory from 2015:

“This is genius,” said Denny.

I confessed that I had stolen the idea from the Tel Miqne/Ekron excavation.

“I don’t care where you got it or how. It’s a fantastic innovation.”

Denny was talking about adding a small sketch of a locus directly to the locus sheet, and his audience was the gathered staff and volunteers of the Shikhin Excavation Project. But he was taking the opportunity to do two things he did well through much practice: teach and encourage.

I’d asked him to lecture on method that evening, so he sat there with an open copy of our “Manual for Area Supervisors,” which he had co-authored, paging through it and explaining to green recruits and seasoned veterans both our procedures and their underpinning logic. His talk was peppered with stories of good and bad method and good and bad excavators, from Rome’s port to Upper Galilee to the Negev. He always said that the field book was the archaeologist’s most important tool.

How did this honored Patristics scholar and retired university chaplain and professor of humanities and archaeology at Illinois Wesleyan University come to be lecturing to archaeologists? Well, he never wanted to be just one thing, and he never was.

We can trace the route backwards. I wanted him at Shikhin where I excavate in northern Israel because, through my time with him at the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris, I knew how he could help. Denny was Associate Director at Sepphoris in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. This project overlapped many seasons at Tel Nessana in the Negev, an excavation that he codirected with Dan Urman. In the 1970s and early 80s, he and my father, James F. Strange, worked with Eric and Carol Meyers on the senior staff of the Meiron Excavation Project, and before that, Denny was on the field staff of the Joint Archaeological Expedition to Caesarea Maritima. His interest in archaeology began at the Mithraeum in Ostia, Italy.

Over the years, Denny’s fascination with the Roman and Byzantine worlds led him to Cyprus, Italy, Israel, Tunisia, and Turkey. And he kept reading his beloved Patristic, Hellenistic, and classical texts, ever reforming his understanding of our ancestors, from the exceptional to the quotidian.

He would have made a good chaplain if it weren’t for the alcohol, cigarettes, and salty humor. Those made him a great chaplain.

Here is a little of what I remember.

The voice: the smooth baritone enlivened all topics, even the importance of the locus sheet.

The eye: when it was fixed on you, you had to watch the corners of the lips to see if the gimlet was piercing you in aggravation, satisfaction, or humor.

The wit: he’d laugh at your jokes and leave you bending and snorting with his own.

The hands: his fingers caressed the pottery as he read it, seeing and feeling the familiar forms and fabrics and keeping alert for the unusual. He could say things about a fine sherd of pottery that would be banned in Florida.

By 2015, he’d had to give up drinking and smoking, two great pleasures, but his other indulgence was people. He truly enjoyed them. You could tell from the things he said to them.

And I will ever see him at a picnic table at Kibbutz Ha-Solelim in the 1990s, a glass of something resting at his elbow and smoke curling from the cigarette in his fingers, as he commented on flowers, people, weather, subordinationism, architecture, and something he called “the new aesthetic.”

You can read a full account of his impressive academic and scholarly oeuvre here
and in the foreword to Studies on Patristics and Archaeology: If These Stones Could Speak … Essays in Honor of Dennis Edward Groh (2009).

I think his wife of 25 years, Dr. Connie Groh, lawyer, Patristics scholar, and archaeologist, should end this tribute to Denny. In a recent email, she wrote:

One thing I admired about Denny’s approach to scholarship, and why we were “on the same page” so much, is that although he had a strong understanding that one’s background and culture helps to shape the way you understand reality, he was also not a postmodernist. This means, among other things, that in Denny’s view it is possible, and worth the effort, to listen for and hear the authentic voices of people from the past. Hence, archaeology—the material culture they left behind—is so helpful not only in grasping the things they wrote, but also in glimpsing the lives of those who left no texts behind. This is that great gift the archaeologist brings, I think. The project is worth the effort. It is not all “just projection” of our own psyches … The stones still speak.

James Riley Strange is the Charles Jackson Granade and Elizabeth Donald Granade Professor in New Testament at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and Director of the Shikhin Excavation Project.

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