The Epps family's annual Christmas Eve party was a rousing, packed affair, where you were as likely to meet someone who worked on the Manhattan Project as you were to meet a struggling writer living over the garage.
Lorna Wyckoff, who founded Style and served as its publisher and editor, was celebrating with the family in 1987, the year Rozanne Epps supposedly retired.
Mrs. Epps was in her mid-60s, having just left a job as director of evening, summer and off-campus studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gov. Gerald Baliles had appointed her to the board of visitors at VCU.
She was not about to ride off into the sunset.
“I don't want to sit around and play bridge all day,” she told Wyckoff.
“Come help us read pages,” Wyckoff suggested.
Mrs. Epps took her up on the offer, though it wasn't for the money. The part-time job of copy editing and proofing paid $4.35 an hour. Yet it became a second career, and sparked an affiliation with Style that lasted 21 years.
In that time Mrs. Epps was a steadfast colleague and friend of journalists half her age, a colorful presence in a scrappy newsroom, a graceful defender of the English language, lover of irony, and a staunch reminder of the publication's role in “opening windows,” she said, to new ideas.
Rosalie Suzanne (Rozanne) Garrett Epps died Nov. 16. She celebrated her 86th birthday last month. As a volunteer with Barack Obama's presidential campaign, she was looking forward to watching Election Day returns. She wrote about voting for Obama on her Facebook page, and was with friends later that day when she suffered a stroke.
She would have delighted in that night's spontaneous parade down Broad Street, sparked by VCU students and other 20-somethings. If she could, she might have joined in.
Writers whose words passed through Mrs. Epps' hands could find it a frustrating, maddening, enlightening experience.
“Polyamory,” she said, while editing Melissa Scott Sinclair's story about a Louisa County commune a few years ago. “Do you think it ought to have a hyphen?”
The dictionary offered no assistance. So Mrs. Epps dialed the reference desk at the Richmond Public Library. They knew her well.
The phone call seemed a bit overboard to the reporter, who protested, a deadline looming. But after much discussion, the verdict was rendered: no hyphen. And thus Mrs. Epps saw to it that the romantic attachments of certain free-spirited communards were described perfectly correctly.
Wise copy editors strive for perfection but know it's beyond reach. The idea was a constant source of worry for Mrs. Epps, the last line of defense. No matter how many editors read a story before her, an uncorrected error in print was her personal cross to bear. She also knew that sometimes there wasn't always a right answer.
That realization made Mrs. Epps a writer's secret weapon. She was not a stickler. She read articles for sense and style, crusading for the author's success. She asked questions that revealed holes in the story. She caught the vague, contradictory and potentially libelous. But clarity was paramount; rules could be broken.
“No doubt there are many copy editors who are totally comfortable with commas,” she wrote in a Rosie Right column from 2000. “Rosie is embarrassed that she is not. Commas seem to her an art form; sometimes she can be seen mumbling at her desk, reading sentences out loud to see if a comma would help, especially after introductory phrases.”
Despite myriad rule books and grammatical resources, as Mrs. Epps put it, “there is no substitute for taking a moment to think for yourself.”
Mrs. Epps filled her life with thought.
A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she received her bachelor's degree in 1943 from Vassar College, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She worked for Naval Intelligence in the Pentagon following graduation. After World War II, she left to write a column for Pathfinder magazine in Washington, D.C.
She was one of three women the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted to its law school in 1946. But she declined. Instead she began a 58-year marriage to Richmonder Augustus Charles Epps, an attorney and later partner at Christian & Barton LLP. He died in 2004.
They raised three sons: Augustus C. Epps Jr., a partner with Christian & Barton; George Garrett Epps, a novelist, journalist and law professor at the University of Baltimore; and John D. Epps, a partner with Hunton & Williams. Mrs. Epps also had two grandchildren.
She received her master of arts from Goddard College in 1974. She had begun her career with the Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU, in 1965.
Mrs. Epps never wanted to be a “sweet old lady,” she quipped during a holiday party at her home for co-workers. A former editor bought a bumper sticker that read, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Yet Mrs. Epps was thoughtful and generous, sharing trinkets from her travels, treating colleagues to cultural events and offering support for their endeavors.
Jennie Dotts was a graduate student at VCU when Mrs. Epps worked there. When Dotts told Mrs. Epps she'd written a monologue for a class, Mrs. Epps offered to hold a party in her living room where it could be produced. Dotts was grateful, but declined the offer. Mrs. Epps admonished, “I just think you're afraid of success!”
We miss her admonishments.
Bishop John Shelby Spong, a man Mrs. Epps admired, highlighted her intellectual curiosity and engagement during her funeral service last week at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
“Those with little passion for life leave little imprint for having lived,” Spong said. “Rozanne left a Grand Canyon that she created and filled with her commitment to living, so recognize that the depth of grief we feel is in direct proportion to the power of the life she lived.”
As much as Mrs. Epps loved words, she craved new ideas and the next big thing. She was proud of her role as editor of Style's Back Page. Although she continued to contribute to Style, Mrs. Epps retired from copy editing last year. Among her activities, she embarked on a volunteer role with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
She wrote about the experience:
“What are those who have reached old age to do to make those extra years something to be treasured? Psychologist Carl Jung in his famous article ‘Stages of Life’ tells us: ƒ?~A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own. …'”
— Jason Roop and Melissa Scott Sinclair, with Lisa Antonelli Bacon, Elizabeth Cogar, Janet Giampietro, Deona Landes Houff and Lorna Wyckoff
Ink And Paper
In advance of the 15th anniversary of Rozanne Epps' Style Weekly column about the fascinating and frustrating English language, in 2005 former reporter Melissa Scott Sinclair edited a selection of column excerpts into a book.
“Rosie Writes: A Chrestomathy of Wisdom from Style Weekly's Linguistic Funambulist,” is available online for $12, plus shipping. It offers our late language maven's sage advice on usage, punctuation, graceful writing and the art of commas.
To order, visit www.cafepress.com/barberstudios. Or call Style Weekly for more information at 358-0825.