Thomas J. Stritch, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, died Thursday (Jan. 22) at Belcourt Terrace Nursing Home in Nashville, Tenn. He was 91 years old.
A Nashville native, Stritch came to Notre Dame as a student in the fall of 1930, was graduated in 1934, received a master’s degree and joined the faculty in 1935. Interrupted only by four years of naval service during World War II, he made the University his home for the rest of the century.
During his summers as a student, Stritch worked as a reporter for the Nashville Banner and the South Bend Tribune. He continued to write as a member of the faculty, in which he taught English and American literature as well as journalism, and served for many years as the editor of the University’s Review of Politics. In training journalists, he always insisted upon substance over skills, loathed course titles like “Newswriting I and II,” and preferred to teach “Modern Culture,” “The Arts and America,” and “The American Character”. This preference indelibly marked the crucial role he played in the establishment of Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies in 1970.
For most of his long career at Notre Dame, Stritch lived on campus in Lyons Hall as one of the University’s “bachelor dons,” a unique group of faculty members he himself once described as “youth-devoted teachers who never married, or postponed marriage till late in life” and who “usually lived in student dormitories where their rooms were generally open to students. They often spent their evenings listening to them, gently advising them, being that disinterested older friend that adolescents need so badly and cherish so greatly.”
Stritch was proud of his Tennessean and Catholic ancestry. On his father’s side, one uncle, Samuel Cardinal Stritch, was archbishop of Chicago. Another uncle, his mother’s brother, was Bishop John B. Morris of Little Rock, who had served for 13 years as a parish priest in Nashville. These familial relations greatly enriched his book, “The Catholic Church in Tennessee,” a history marking the 150th anniversary of the Catholic Diocese of Nashville in 1987. Similarly, his intimacy with the communal life and customary ways of making do at Notre Dame influenced his memoir, “My Notre Dame: Memories and Reflections of Sixty Years,” which was published in 1991.
A man of insatiable curiosity, a gift for affection, and a healthy suspicion of academic specialty (“Give me a little learning every time,” he once said. “I don’t think it a bit dangerous. I think it’s fun.”), he was an invaluable interpreter of the University to those unfamiliar with it and could speak authoritatively about the particularities of the campus landscape, architecture, and student life. He loved Notre Dame and everyone associated with it, and loved nothing so much as talking about it.
“Talk,” he said, "is the heart of education. Much else is necessary, especially reading and writing. But talk is the solid, steady undercurrent of college life. Not wild talk and certainly not dirty talk. You can get those anywhere, in an army barracks or any leisure-time hangout. The best college talk is high-minded, in the midnight hours, searching, groping for goals and God, seeking what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “that selfless love of self, most strange, most still, fast-furled and all foredrawn to no or yes.”
In 1930, Stritch met his favorite teacher and mentor, another legendary Notre Dame teacher, James A. Withey. “He was the best teacher I ever saw in action,” Stritch wrote later. “He was not a prophet, and he would not let a coterie or cult develop around him. He taught as a charity, God’s work, and while he had the strongest likes and dislikes I ever saw, he gave each student his money’s worth.” He could as easily have been writing about himself.
A memorial Mass will be celebrated at a date to be determined.