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Remembering Professor Tom Stritch

Gary Caruso | Friday, January 30, 2004

Last week, an era at Notre Dame ended with the passing of Thomas J. Stritch, professor emeritus of American Studies. At the age of 91, Stritch was the last of the University’s mid-twentieth century “bachelor dons,” faculty who lived in the residence halls and mentored students. While his spirit may have joined the other Notre Dame Mr. Chips in the world beyond, his influence thrives in the students he touched, including me.

Stritch reminded me of Lieutenant Tragg, the short, white-haired, bellicose character on the 1950s “Perry Mason” television series. His deep, unique voice was readily recognizable when passing his classroom door. His mastery of the English language dazzled listeners and never betrayed the fact that he, like the other fully tenured University “dons,” usually taught their entire careers while holding no more than a masters degree. Upon his 1934 graduation from Notre Dame, Stritch began his nearly 60-year teaching experience in 1935.

Originally a teacher of English, American literature and journalism, Stritch and Professor Ron Weber almost single-handedly established the department of American Studies while I attended Notre Dame in 1970. Weber chaired the new department that melded American literature, politics, communications and history at a time when our nation’s culture was still exploding with antiwar fervor in the post-assassination 1960s. The pair were perfectly matched. Weber’s administrative talents complemented Stritch’s zeal and steady guidance. The department became an instant success, and I declared it my major at the end of its first year.

It is obvious today that Stritch was a man of destiny. He was a man of his time which allowed him to initially settle into his “bachelor don” role. It seems incredible that those who lived among the students could, in one sense, extend their youth on their beloved campus. A study of those lives probably would reveal a longevity well beyond their fellow classmates who departed for business careers devoid of the laughter and melancholy prevalent among college life.

Living among the students in Lyons Hall, Stritch joined the most notable “bachelor don” and fellow English professor, Frank O’Malley. I was, in a way, also a man of destiny, for I lived in Lyons Hall and was one of the very few who regularly spoke with those two campus giants well beyond the midnight hour. They taught us how to strive for the meaning of life during those most sacred of educational experiences. Each lived a vigorous existence, pursuing the life of the mind, attempting to fuse the life of the ideal with the real. And while I was not remotely near as scholarly, both touched me in a valuable way.

Never again will persons such as those “bachelor dons” live as perpetual students within the confines of collegiate dormitories. In today’s digital existence, we find the meaning of life through a Google search. Thinking back on my encounters with Professor Stritch, I cannot help but feel like Scrooge watching the ghosts of his youth at boarding school. But oh, those are such wonderful memories.

Someone once said that a teacher’s life is like a pebble falling in a still pond. It ripples out so long as part of the teacher remains within a student’s soul. Stritch was such a teacher. My sister, Notre Dame ’79, e-mailed Stritch’s obituary to me and simply wrote, “I loved this guy’s class.” That is the highest praise any student can bestow.

For all the benefits I received from Professor Stritch’s zest, despite my lack of attention or understanding at the time, I doubt that I can throw as large a pebble or wake the pond as far as he. Yet, it is his type of existence at Notre Dame with scholarly dedication, tolerance and wit that leaves those who follow with a sense of fulfillment. Each generation may be part of a radically reborn culture, but each will have its own Stritch.

It is fitting to honor a literature teacher with a poem. To Professor Emeritus Thomas J. Stritch I dedicate the following as I complete this column beyond the midnight hour:

Out of the strain of doingInto the peace of the done,Out of the thirst of pursuingInto the rapture of won.

Gary Caruso served as a public and legislative affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. His e-mail address had previously been erroneously listed in The Observer but is now correct. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.