A newspaper for ECU faculty and staff
Pieces of Eight

Alan White, dean of the ECU Harriot College of Arts and Sciences (left), thanks Dr. Jesse R. Peel, of Atlanta, for the gift that will help create the J. Woolard and Helen Peel Distinguished Professorship in Religious Studies. (Contributed photo)

Peel Gift Provides Professorship for Religious Studies

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

Officials with the Religious Studies Program at East Carolina University received a gift last month intended to provide a third faculty member to the growing interdisciplinary program.

The gift, announced at the annual Jarvis Lecture on Christianity and Culture, is from the late Helen Keel Peel and her son, Dr. Jesse R. Peel, of Atlanta.  The Peel family’s gift is intended to create the J. Woolard and Helen Peel Distinguished Professorship in Religious Studies.

Calvin Mercer, ECU professor and director of the Religious Studies Program, said the gift reflects the kind of generosity and foresight that can touch the lives of many students.

“This is a significant moment in the history of the Religious Studies Program,” he said. “More than ever, our complicated world needs careful thinking about religion and its role in human affairs. This gift will allow us to more effectively serve our students and the larger community.”

The Peel family’s gift to ECU will be $333,000. Combined with $167,000 in matching funds from the State of North Carolina’s Professors Endowment Trust Fund, the total endowment for the religious studies professorship will be $500,000.

In 1986, the Peels established the J. Woolard Peel University Scholars Award, said Alan White, dean of the Harriot College of Arts and Sciences.

“Jesse and his family were among some of the university’s first families to establish endowments for merit scholarships used to recruit outstanding high school students for East Carolina University’s freshman class each year,” White said. “We are grateful for the Peel family’s continued support of ECU and its academic programs.”

The Religious Studies program at ECU was established in 1989 with Mercer as its sole faculty member. In 2003, Derek Maher joined the faculty and teaches courses in Islamic and Buddhist studies.

The program has about 25 students who major in religion through the interdisciplinary program, and hundreds of students take general education religion courses. 

Dozens of students have earned academic credit traveling to Egypt, Greece, Morocco and other destinations, in what has grown to be the university’s largest summer study abroad program.

At the lecture, Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas discussed America’s fear of death to a crowd of about 250 people.

This page originally appeared in the Nov. 18, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at