In memoriam: Joseph Buttigieg
Letter to the Editor | Friday, February 1, 2019
On Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, the Notre Dame community lost a great professor and an even greater man. Notre Dame, South Bend and the world lost Joseph A. Buttigieg, known affectionately by his students as either JAB or Prof. B, depending on which email signature he first used with you.
I had the pleasure of meeting JAB my first day of class, my freshman year. By that time, teaching had become JAB’s side job. In 2010 he was appointed inaugural director of the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program, and he made a distinct impact on dozens of students in that program every year until his retirement. In conversations I had with him throughout our friendship, I learned that JAB had not forgotten any of his HY students. He knew not just their backgrounds and extracurricular interests while at school, but also what they did after they graduated. He loved his students, and he only saw the best in every single one of them. From my friends in HY, current students and alumni, I’m told that above all else, spending time with JAB was the highlight of the program.
I still joke that JAB “taught me how to read,” and I am only barely exaggerating. He always pushed compliments like this aside. JAB saw himself as simply present in his students lives, but to many of us he was much more. He was a guide. He was an ever-encouraging professor who shared not just his knowledge but also his deep empathy and understanding of people’s lives. Through his class, JAB showed me the magic in history, the power of analysis and the moral lessons in literature. In seminar lectures, he often illustrated for us connections between classic books and modern-day politics. From Aristotle to Primo Levi, JAB showed his students that the true magic of literature rested in what you did with it; in what links you could draw between fiction and the world around you. He taught us all of this while never once being intimidating — always encouraging people’s opinions and helping us see the works through our own lenses. It is no surprise that some of my most important friendships, including my one with JAB, developed in his class.
Even after JAB retired two years ago, he was not prepared to let go of his students. He kept in touch with many of them, taking them out to lunch, writing letters of recommendation and never turning down a book or article recommendation. This meant I had the privilege to see him often, and his endless love for learning meant that my bi-weekly lunches with him were always the highlights of my semesters. He would select his favorite restaurants: La Esperanza, Cambodian Thai, Nick’s Patio and anywhere that served Chinese food. We would talk for hours, drinking coffee and laughing about politics.
He always had something beautiful to say. Whether it was the stories he told me of his weekly protests on campus when Notre Dame refused to divest from apartheid South Africa, his careful analyses of recent books or his insistence that every decision I ever made was the right choice, I left every lunch in awe of him.
I remember that during one lunch, over egg rolls at Cinco 5, I jokingly told him that I planned to take a few years off school to learn more about the coffee-making process. He instantly smiled, saying it was a great idea. Before I could tell him it was a joke, he had already shared museum recommendations for the cities I mentioned I wanted to visit. He followed up with a suggestion that I write a book on the subject, or at least find some way to contribute that knowledge to society. That was JAB: filled with endless love but always concerned with the public good. He saw in people what they couldn’t see in themselves and then helped them find it.
JAB structured that freshman year literature seminar to be as beautifully empathetic as the man who taught it. In the syllabus, he included a quote by Antonio Gramsci — the Italian philosopher to whom JAB dedicated much of his renowned academic career:
“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, of ‘knowing thyself’ as the product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory. One must start by compiling such an inventory.”
JAB had compiled his inventory and dedicated his life to help others do the same. He will be remembered for his unwavering compassion, intellect, and commitment to good. Joseph A. Buttigieg lives on through his impact on us, his family and his community.
We’ll miss you, JAB. Thank you for everything.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.