At Johns Hopkins, the name Sheridan never seems far
from a book. In his remarks at the rededication of the
libraries in 1998, President
William R. Brody said, "In the
past, the library has sometimes been thought of as an
exceptional resource that someone else should support.
Champ and Debbie [Sheridan] have showed us the library not
only needed our support, it deserved special generosity of
the highest order."
Former President William C. Richardson once said of
the couple that they were "the library visionaries of our
They both were speaking of R. Champlin Sheridan and
his wife, Debbie, who in 1994 made a $20 million commitment
to nearly double the library's endowment and support its
planned renovations. Three years earlier the couple had
endowed the library director's position.
Champ is the Baltimore-born son of a printer, and a
Johns Hopkins graduate with a bachelor's in business. He
worked for many years at his father's printing business and
later scraped together $1,000 to buy Everybody's Poultry
Magazine Publishing Co., where he then worked, from its
retiring owners. He built that business into the Sheridan
Group, one of the nation's leading scientific and medical
printers. He was elected to the university's board of
trustees in 1989, and from 1990 to 2001, he chaired the
Eisenhower Library Advisory Council.
Debbie is a Penn State alumna and a former teacher who
has been active in the leadership of the Friends of the
Johns Hopkins University Libraries, an organization that
champions the libraries through lectures, programs and the
support of acquisitions, technology and access.
In 1998, the university honored the couple by
rededicating Homewood's Milton S. Eisenhower Library and
its collections at the Albert D. Hutzler Reading Room, the
John Work Garrett Library at Evergreen House and the
Peabody Library as the Sheridan Libraries.
On Thursday, the two will be recognized again when a
portrait of the Sheridans (and their dog, Kermit) will be
unveiled in the Eisenhower Library. The dedication
ceremony, a picnic that is open to the entire community,
will begin at 4 p.m. at the library's Q-Level.
The university libraries have come a long way, thanks
in large part to the Sheridans' generosity. In 1998, the
Eisenhower Library underwent a major renovation, and many
amenities and enhancements have since been added, including
an expanded Digital Knowledge Center and an updated
The Sheridans recently sat down with The Gazette to
discuss the upcoming portrait dedication/picnic, their
philanthropy and, well, libraries.
Q: It's been said it was you who wanted the
dedication ceremony to be an informal, picnic-style affair.
Debbie: We definitely wanted it to be more laid
back, more informal, rather than something stuffy. We
wanted to encourage students to attend, so we decided to go
the hot dogs and hamburgers route.
Champ: We thought that all the people who used the
library — students, graduate students, faculty, the
community — would appreciate that whenever the
portrait is hung to also be able to see and/or meet those
who were in the portrait. And in part, it sort of helps the
both of us because it's nice to remind ourselves we're
still alive (laughs).
Q: What was your experience like working with the
artist, Peter Egeli?
Champ: We had six sessions, other than the first
session with Peter, in which each of us posed individually.
He would reposition us each time in the exact same
position, roughly two and half hours a session, standing
there while he painted details and studied the lighting. If
I had known it was going to be that much work to start
with, I would have suggested a photograph [laughs].
Debbie: As we got to know him, it was really fun.
He's the most interesting person — he can talk about
any subject you can think about.
Q: There's a third subject in the portrait, your
dog. Was that the artist's idea, or did you request that he
Debbie: Actually, I would sit on that chair every
time, and Kermit never left my side. He would just lie
there the whole time. After about the fifth session,
[Peter] said, "That's it!" I said, "What?" He said, "I need
something for the bottom of the painting." So, he put
Kermit in, and I think he came out the best of all of us.
He did a great job capturing him.
Q: Would either of you describe yourself as a
Champ: No, I wouldn't say either one of us is. We
both enjoy reading, and probably enjoy reading more than
television, but the fact that all of my working career has
been as a printer, I have a sort of natural affinity for
books and journals.
Q: What is your favorite book, say in the past 10
years or so?
Debbie: Probably the one I just read, Seabiscuit.
Champ: I would say The Da Vinci Code. But if I think
back over the years, one of my favorites is the one that is
in Debbie's lap [in the portrait], which is John
Rutherford's London. It tracks the area of London from
almost prehistoric man up to the start of the 20th century.
It's a wonderful book.
Q: Did either of you have a favorite book growing
up, perhaps one that sparked your love of reading?
Debbie: When I taught, I used to love to read
Charlotte's Web. I would read that over and over, and the
kids just loved it. It's really a great story. When I was a
kid, however, I used to love the Nancy Drew series. I wish
I still had those books.
Champ: No real favorite sticks out in my memory.
I've found that books are sort of like building blocks: You
read one or two, and that would pique your curiosity in
something you would otherwise never have thought about. I
often come across a book I like and then look for other
books on that subject.
Q: What led you to the generous commitments you
made to the university libraries in 1991, and then again in
Champ: It really came out of being a longtime
college friend of Ross Jones' [vice president and secretary
emeritus]. Through Ross, I was given insight as to what
were the areas of the university that needed help. So,
first we endowed the directorship, knowing it could make a
significant difference to the continuity and growth of the
library and help us get topnotch, world-class directors,
which we certainly have done. Then we made a larger
commitment. As we explored different areas of Johns Hopkins
and Hopkins Medicine to support, we saw that the library is
sort of an underdog that needs attention and is often taken
Debbie: Yes. I think people are more apt to give to
cancer research, which is needed and wonderful, but when
you think of it, the library is so important because
everyone uses it. It's not the most glamorous, but it's
Q: What do you think of all the changes made to the
MSEL since 1994?
Debbie: I think there have been some incredible
Champ: I agree, but we've been very hands-off in
terms of what or how the gift has been used, knowing that
really should be the university's decision and the
library's decision, so we haven't tried to steer that in
Q: Do you enjoy libraries? I mean, when you are
traveling, do you seek them out?
Champ: As we've traveled, we have gone and sought
out libraries, just out of interest. I remember in Ireland
we went to a small crossroads community, which maybe had a
dozen houses at the most. There we went to a library that
had books dating back to the 1460s. Gutenberg printed the
Bible from movable type in 1454, I believe, [and] I
thought, how remarkable that within 10 years after this
world-changing invention, there were printed books in
libraries throughout Europe. What is remarkable is how
fast the technology spread, considering the complicated,
lengthy travel of those times.
Debbie: One of the libraries we really enjoyed was
in Nanjing. It is the only open-stack library in all of
China, and it's owned and operated by Johns Hopkins
University. That was very interesting, very memorable.
Q: Champ, were you a library denizen back in the
Champ: Yes and no. My first summer, between my
freshman and sophomore years, I worked in the library here,
hauling books. It was very physical labor, but jobs were
not that easy to find back then. I was just glad I had a
Champ, what do you feel is the responsibility of a JHU
Champ: My personal viewpoint is to help ensure that
this and the next generation have the same or even greater
opportunities than each of us had when we were students
here. We were all the recipients of somebody else's
kindness, love and generosity. In a sense, a trustee is not
only preserving Johns Hopkins but enlarging upon it and
passing it on to future generations.
Q: How do you react when you hear people say "the
Debbie: I just think it's great that it's here, and
that people are using it.
Champ: Both of us have stopped trying to correct
people from saying it's ours; they should be saying "their"
Q: What was your reaction to the renaming of the
libraries in your honor?
Champ: I would have been just as pleased and
satisfied if they had not, personally. The satisfaction
hasn't come from the naming, but I do recognize that it can
be helpful to encourage other people with a philanthropic
bent to be donors and contributors.
Debbie: I agree with Champ on that. It does help,
and we have seen that it has helped others to want to do
something. So, in that way it has been very beneficial.
Q: When you walk in the library door now, on a busy
day like today, how does it make you feel?
Champ: Like Debbie said, that [the library] is used
so much is wonderful. And the fact that the library staff,
students, university staff and faculty are so supportive of
it makes us feel that we did the right thing.