University celebrates professor’s life service

Feelings of remorse were prevalent among Rattlers at Lee Hall Auditorium Friday as family and friends gathered for a memorial service.

The service was to give three last silent strikes to celebrate the life of James N. Eaton, Sr., a distinguished professor of history and founder and director of what is now the Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum.

Eaton left a mark of experience on the campus of Florida A&M University that will be remembered by many.

“(He was) a professor, but really a teacher,” said President Fred Gainous, who remembers his first encounter with Eaton when he was in the seventh grade.

A professor to many and mentor to some, the late 74-year-old touched the lives of many students and faculty at the University.

One of those Rattlers is Walter Smith, the seventh president of FAMU, who traveled from Tampa and said he stood by Eaton’s bedside a week before Eaton died. The former president said Eaton was the reason he applied for president.

“Professor Eaton gave me the courage because I was not going to apply for the position,” Smith said.

Smith remembered Eaton’s last words to him as being “Dr. Walter Smith, my president.”

Smith plans to emphasize the teachings of Eaton at the Walter Smith Library in Tampa, where the goal is to mold young students in the community.

Don Hill, another close friend and colleague of Eaton, helped the professor in his effort to establish the Black Archives. Hill said initially he was unable to see the vision Eaton had for turning the then dilapidated Carnegie Library into a museum to house African and African-American artifacts, including Hill’s personal 200 piece collection.

“I was told to find and meet a man named Professor Eaton when I got here,” Hill said. “He found me.”

The two became close friends and Hill began to see and support Eaton’s vision.

Hill, who lived in South Africa, taught Eaton how to play an African drum that became one of Eaton’s favorite pieces. During the memorial service, Hill played an African horn to honor Eaton personally, and said that he will continue to play the drum that was so dear to the history professor in his remembrance.

Winning the Most Outstanding Teacher of the Year award 25 times in Eaton’s 44 years at FAMU, Eaton helped to establish the baccalaureate degree in black history studies, the first in the State of Florida.

Several former students returned to the campus to pay their respects at the service.

“Professor Eaton was a cut above the ordinary,” said Barbara Cotton, a former professor of history and student of Eaton’s.

Remarks were made through tears after watching a videotape of chronological events of Eaton’s life.

It was difficult for former student Leonard Bruton, a professor at Palm Beach Community College, to speak as he gave his reflection of his experience of being the first student worker at the Black Archives in 1975.

“Professor Eaton was always someone you could go to about any situation,” said Bruton, who said Eaton was like a father to him.

“The best compliment I have ever gotten was …did I know James Eaton,” Bruton said. “Because when I listen to you talk I see James Eaton in your approach when you deliver your style.” He said that he will never forget his love for history and what Eaton has taught him.

Members of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. bonded at the memorial to show brotherly love to their beloved lost member of the organization.

“It was a privilege for any student on the campus of FAMU to have taken a tour of the Black Archives with Professor Eaton,” said Michael Morton, president of the Alpha Xi chapter of the fraternity. Morton said that the knowledge professor Eaton possessed and shared with the students during a tour should be cherished.

“But sometimes we don’t realize it until something special is gone,” Morton said.

Eaton’s family was also in attendance. They were surrounded by special guests who included, Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and board of trustee member Rev. R.B. Holmes of Bethel Baptist Church, who gave a closing prayer, and several university vice presidents and administrators.

E. Murrell Dawson, interim director of the Black Archives and long time mentee of Eaton’s, presented the family a resolution on behalf of the Black Archives staff.

Larry Rivers, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, was unable to attend, however; Ralph Tuner, who presided over the service, read a letter from Rivers that stated, “Professor Eaton will always be remembered.”

David McCaskill, Black Archives staff member and close friend to Eaton, said that the professor encouraged him every day to be a better man. He assured the late professor’s wife Leathea Owens that though she and the family have lost a loved one, the professor’s light will forever shine on the campus of FAMU.

Eaton died Oct. 24.

Contact Danzell Bussey at