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‘He went out of his way to help people’: Colleagues, friends remember philosophy professor Michael ‘Mic’ Detlefsen

| Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Michael “Mic” Detlefsen received many awards and accolades during his 36 years of teaching at Notre Dame. But those who knew him well knew those awards didn’t matter to him — instead, the McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy made helping people his primary focus. 

“He didn’t think that all of the awards that he won were all that important,” said Patricia Blanchette, a professor in the philosophy department and Detlefsen’s friend and colleague. “I think that he thought what was important about his job was that he could help people.”

Courtesy of Christine Grandy
Detlefsen, McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy, taught at Notre Dame for 36 years. Colleagues say he focused on helping other and was a proud grandfather.

Detlefsen died Oct. 21 at the age of 71, leaving behind a host of admiring and loving family, friends, colleagues and students.

Blanchette, who had known Detlefsen since 1993, worked closely with him on many research projects, but soon got to know him as a close friend. Detlefsen attended her wedding, and Blanchette was able to attend his daughter’s wedding during the time the two knew each other. 

His work often focused on the history and philosophy of mathematics and logic, but the people who knew him emphasized his work as a professor. 

“He went out of his way to help people who had just started their first jobs and were finishing their Ph.D., things like that,” Blanchette said. “I watched him all these years really have a lot to do with the development of many young scholars’ careers. There are many people working in the philosophy of mathematics and logic department now whose careers have been very importantly helped along and shaped by Mic’s generosity with his time and his depth of knowledge in the field.”

Blanchette added that Detlefsen tried to get his students to express their own views, not the ones they think they should have.

“I’ve talked to him a great deal about his teaching, and his values of teaching were mainly to help people learn how to think clearly and to help them figure out how to most clearly express their own views,” Blanchette said. “Not so much to learn what other people thought except to the extent that that was important to figuring out what their right view was.”

Detlefsen was Matteo Bianchetti’s graduate school advisor. Bianchetti, a second-year graduate student, remembers Detlefsen pushing his students to find their own voice within their work. But beyond their professional relationship, Bianchetti, who is an international student, valued Detlefsen’s patience and kindness when he had struggles with writing in English.

“He was very patient. … It wasn’t easy for me to write decently in English for some time, but he was very patient and offered some advice to improve my English,” Bianchetti said. “Some other professors were less supportive. That was not something I received from everybody, but I received it from him.”

Bianchetti said Detlefsen’s dedication to his students, even through illness, stuck out to him. 

“Even when he was in the hospital, he was still sending me comments about my draft,” he said. 

Although his days were busy, filled with organizing conferences, traveling to his visiting positions at five different international institutions and working closely with students, Detlefsen made time to work on his research.

Detlefsen most recently received the 2016 Research Achievement Award, which is awarded to one professor at the University each year, as well as the James A. Burns, C.S.C Award, for distinction in and exemplary contributions to graduate education in 2015. 

After earning his bachelor’s at Wheaton College and his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, Detlefsen took a job at Notre Dame in 1983 with his wife, Martha and their three children, Hans, Anna and Sara. There he met Anand Pillay, who arrived in the mathematics department at the same time, and the two edited the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, working together for many years. 

“We used to meet regularly … and we’d talk about everything,” Pillay said. “We had a very good relationship, and I miss him a lot.”

Pillay, the William J. Hank Family chair in Mathematics at the University, said over the years Detlefsen became a prominent figure in the philosophy of mathematics and logic world. 

But still to his colleagues, Detlefsen wanted to talk about his growing family.

“Our conversations were primarily about our children more than our work,” Blanchette said, adding that Detlefsen loved being a grandfather. 

“He was also personally just a very warm person,” Blanchette said. “He liked getting to know people’s families, like getting to know their children and their dogs, especially. He was a big fan of everybody’s dogs.”

Detlefsen, a Nebraska native, came from a farming family and did not have any roots in the scholarly community prior to his career. 

“He was very much not the pretentious professor type,” Blanchette said. “He was a very down to Earth guy. He came from a family who farmed and did really sort of straightforward jobs.” 

Although Detlefsen was known for a great amount of academic work, those who knew him say he didn’t take himself too seriously.

“He enjoyed this job a great deal, but he didn’t take it any more seriously than any other job that he had,” Blanchette said. “He thought it was a really good job to have, and he loved it.”

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and was the Managing Editor of The Observer for the 2020-2021 school year. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

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