Scholar and leader Philip Eaton, ’65, loves the written word. The son of a farmer, Eaton’s initial spark came from hearing his father read the Bible around the dinner table. “I can still hear the echoes and rhythm of his voice reading Scriptures,” Eaton said in a Seattle Times story. “It was such a shaping experience. Perhaps that shaped my love of the language, writing, expression and perspective.” Eaton entered Whitworth planning to major in economics, but he chose to follow a path that fostered his passion for literature. After earning a B.A. in English, he went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate from Arizona State University.
When Eaton joined the Whitworth faculty, in 1968, he experienced the surreal experience of being back in the English department, and teaching alongside Clarence Simpson, the professor he had most revered as a student. In an interview in Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, Eaton said of that time: “When Dave Winter, the new vice president for academic affairs, came, he wanted to shake up all the departments, so he instituted radical change by saying that the youngest Ph.D. in every department would become the department chair. So…I’m in this department with this massive figure in my life, and I become, at 20-something, the chair. I’m absolutely quaking. It was really something.”
In addition to his duties as professor and sometimes-chair, Eaton wrote critically acclaimed poetry that was published in literary journals, and he composed several poems in tribute to his Whitworth students and read them at commencement. In the early 1980s he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for poetry study. He was the first recipient of the Whitworth Academic Dean’s Award for Outstanding Teaching, and Whitworth awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2000. Eaton’s wife, Sharon (Kaul), is a 1964 alumna, and the Eatons’ twin sons, Mark and Mike, are members of the Class of ’87.
Eaton taught at Whitworth until 1985, then returned to Arizona to pursue a career in business. He also joined the Whitworth Board of Trustees at this time. In 1992, he received a call asking him to consider the interim president position that had become available at Whitworth. After much consideration, the Eatons decided to move back to the Pacific Northwest for the year-long (1992-93) appointment. The move opened new career possibilities for Eaton, and, after serving as Seattle Pacific University’s provost, he was elected the ninth president of SPU, in 1996; he retired in 2012.
Eaton experienced another homecoming of sorts when he rejoined Whitworth’s board in 2013. His style of leadership at SPU closely modeled the mind-and-heart values Whitworth seeks to instill in its graduates. “The notion of mind and heart has shaped my Christian commitments throughout my life,” he said when joining the board. “I believe the Christian university must shine with intellectual vitality, vibrant spiritual life, and grace-filled community, and I hope to contribute in whatever small way I can to the future of this great Christian university.”