Harold Wendell French

January 14, 1930July 10, 2014

COLUMBIA - Devoted husband, cherished father and friend, and beloved teacher, Harold Wendell French passed from this life on July 10, 2014, with his family by his side. Hal was 84. A native of Kansas, he was son of Ernest and Margaret Mason French. Dr. French’s first career was in the ministry, serving Methodist churches in Kansas and Massachusetts, and at Westmar College in Iowa as Chaplain. He began full-time teaching at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina and has taught at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Religious Studies since 1972. He retired formally as Department Chair in 1995. But the pull of the classroom was too strong, and he continued teaching part-time in what he called his “failed retirement!” At the same time, he was involved in different service projects nationally and internationally. His lifelong passion for teaching and service opened generations of college students to cultural and religious understandings and to their own potential as bridge builders. He received numerous recognitions from the University of South Carolina and South Carolina Honors College, including Mortar Board awards for Excellence in Teaching and the university’s distinguished Teacher of the Year Award. Dr. French authored four books and edited five others. He was an editor of the recently published eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism. His book, Zen and the Art of Anything, was published in three editions and was listed as one of the fifty best spiritual books of the year in 2001 by the journal Spirituality and Health. He published numerous articles and reviews. Dr. French lectured widely at different universities, including a semester at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. In recent years he conducted workshops at the Esalen Institute in California, the Chautauqua Institution in New York, and the Ammerdown Centre in England. Since his primary research area was Asian religions, Hal frequently led study abroad trips, including the University of Pittsburg Semester at Sea program to eleven countries, as well as trips to Greece, India, Turkey, Japan, England, Vietnam and Cambodia through the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. He was also involved with service projects in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, Habitat for Humanity programs and other service learning initiatives with students. These trips often found Hal in unusual circumstances such as the time he was mudding the walls of a destroyed orphanage in India in 110-degree heat! Dialogue with other religious traditions was a vital part of his professional and personal life. Dr. French’s professional activities have included presentations and offices held in the American Academy of Religion, The Association for Asian Studies and interfaith associations such as The North American Interfaith Network, The International Interfaith Centre in Oxford, England, The World Congress of Faiths, Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and the World Parliament of Religions. Since 2011 he has been Chair of the U.S. Chapter of the International Association for Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest international interfaith organization. Hal was active in the Democratic Party and sang with the Columbia Choral Society for many years, serving on the Board and as President. He was currently President Elect of the Golden K Kiwanis Club. He was a member of Shandon United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. Hal is survived by his loving family, including his wife of 31 years, Elizabeth Randylyn French, “Rannie,” his three children: Stephen Alan French (Nancy) of Denver, Colorado, Mark Philip French (Candi) of Pelion, South Carolina, and Rebecca Lynn Nelson of Peabody, Kansas, three stepdaughters: Jennifer Miller Van Fossen (Eric), Julia Miller Saxon (Joel), Anna Miller Tartak (Jochen). He was equally blessed by his cherished grandchildren: Daniel and Joanna French of Denver, Colorado, Jason French of Pelion, South Carolina, Lily and Alexander Van Fossen and Kate and Caroline Saxon of Atlanta, Georgia, and Lucas and Jackson Tartak of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hal loved his family as well as his relationships with the entire university community. While he relished teaching, he also loved learning from his students. Hal brought light to the lives of those he touched, and he will be remembered for his Zen-like approach to life, his passion for teaching, his unique sense of humor, his gentle spirit, and his remarkable knowledge of many subjects. A memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at Shandon United Methodist Church. The family will receive friends immediately following the service in Player Hall. Dunbar Funeral Home, Devine Street Chapel, is assisting the family. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the University of South Carolina Honors College or the Department of Religious Studies, or the outreach missions of Shandon United Methodist Church, The Unitarian Universalist Congregation, or the charity of one’s choice.


  • Memorial Service Wednesday, July 16, 2014
  • Visitation Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Harold Wendell French

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meri gergel

August 1, 2014

My thoughts and prayers are with you at this diffcult time.

Jack Montgomery

July 20, 2014

"Dr. French" as I knew him was my beloved teacher and friend in the Religious Studies Department. I was his student in the mid-1970s and to say he radically changed the course of my spiritual life is not an understatement. He encouraged and developed my love of learning and research that continues to this day. He was unfailingly kind, thoughtful and sincere. I will miss him and wish him well on this new journey.

Kay Shuler Ornelas

July 18, 2014

Dr. French was a cherished and beloved professor. His love for life and his all encompassing acceptance of others created a unique classroom experience that was unrivaled. He was the best of Carolina.

Kendrick Clements

July 17, 2014

I was bowled over by the list of Hal's accomplishments, but it seems characteristic of him that he never called attention to such things. Instead, I remember him as a kind and thoughtful man who always focused his interest and attention on the person to whom he was talking. His knowledge and enthusiasm about so many things made him a delightful colleague and friend.

July 17, 2014

My heartfelt condolences to Hal's family. They have lost a devoted and caring husband and father. The USC community has lost one of its most valued faculty leaders. Hal was a superb and prolific scholar and an inspiring teacher whose "interactive" approach to teaching brought out the very best in students at all levels. Hal was the very model of what an academic should be. His approach to his calling was truly inspirational. It was an honor to have known him and to have been one of his university colleagues for the past 42 years.
Charles "Randy" Mack, USC School of Art and Design, (ret.)

Bobby Donaldson

July 16, 2014

As we look toward a future dimly lit with Hal's passing, his shining light and brilliant example will guide us on the journey ahead. Rest well, our friend and teacher!! You will remain an enduring "pillar" of Preston Residential College. Grace and Peace to your family.

Amy Sarant

July 16, 2014

It was a pleasure getting to know Dr. French during his visits to Dr. Mikell's office. He was always so uplifting and encouraging to me as I am working on completing a degree in Christian Counseling. He always had wonderful advice and encouragement to offer and I truly enjoyed the intellectual, religious, and political discussions we had. I am praying for peace and blessings to his family and friends during this time as they mourn the passing of such a wonderul spirit.

Connie Scrivens

July 16, 2014

Hal made the world a better place. He walked the talk. His compassionate and curious spirit were so inspiring. My colleagues and I were reflecting on Hal's life this week, and we all agreed he was the kindest person any of us has ever known.

Lil Dowdey

July 16, 2014

Dr. French was a wonderful inspiration to all who knew him. When he came into our library at Wheatley, his smile, his kindness, and his wry sense of humor made our day. We will all miss him as we have his family in our prayers.

July 16, 2014

To my Dear Friend, Rannie. Please know that you and your family are in my prayers during Hal's transition from this life to the next. He was a Gentle Giant that touched the lives of many.

I'm so glad to have gotten the chance to meet him during this life time. I pray that you are comforted by the many great memories you were able to share with Hal.

May he Rest in Peace and may you have Peace in knowing that he loved the Lord.

Loretta Taylor-Griffin