In memoriam: Timothy O’Meara, provost emeritus

Author: Michael O. Garvey

Timothy O'Meara

Timothy O’Meara, provost emeritus, Kenna Professor of Mathematics Emeritus and Trustee Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, died June 17. He was 90.


A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1962, O’Meara twice served as chairman of the University’s mathematics department and served as its first lay provost from 1978 to 1996.


Tim O'Meara was a multi-talented professor and administrator, a world-class mathematician, a great husband and family man, a faithful Catholic, a visionary provost and a person deeply devoted to Notre Dame” said Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., president emeritus of the University who worked directly with O’Meara for nine years. “His legacy is evident all around the campus. He will be missed.”


“We are deeply grateful for Tim O’Meara’s many invaluable contributions to Notre Dame,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., the University’s president. “May God bless and keep him.”


Onorato Timothy O’Meara was born Jan. 29, 1928, in Cape Town, South Africa, on the second story of a bakery his parents, Daniel and Fiorina O’Meara, owned and operated there.


He was graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1947 and earned a master’s degree in mathematics there the following year.  Earning his doctoral degree from Princeton University in 1953, he taught at the University of Otago in New Zealand from 1954 to 1956 before returning to Princeton where he served on the mathematics faculty and as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study for the next six years.


During the early years of O’Meara’s academic career, his enthusiasm for mathematics seemed matched only by his enthusiasm for motorcycling, and on often daunting road trips he traversed the African, European and North American continents—including one 12-day round-trip from Princeton, through Wyoming, to Los Angeles, to the rim of the Grand Canyon and back to Princeton. 


Those nomadic days abruptly ended when he met a young woman named Jean T. Fadden of Philadelphia, whom he married in 1953. 


“Her first and most decisive move,” O’Meara liked to recall, “was to give me a clear choice between her and my constant companion in South Africa, Europe and America—my 1.0-litre Black Shadow motorcycle.”  All five of the O’Mearas’ children earned Notre Dame degrees.


O’Meara was among the distinguished Catholic scholars personally recruited by Notre Dame’s Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., early in his institutionally transformational 35-year presidency. Joining the faculty in 1962, and ironically, given the subsequent three decades of his Notre Dame career, requesting that he never be asked to take any administrative position in the University, O’Meara soon became chairman of the mathematics department.


In addition to his mathematical teaching and scholarship, he published magisterial works, including “Introduction to Quadratic Forms,” “Lectures on Linear Groups,” “Symplectic Groups” and “The Classical Groups and K-Theory,” co-authored with Alexander J. Hahn, professor of mathematics emeritus at Notre Dame and a former O’Meara doctoral student.


O’Meara was appointed Notre Dame’s first lay provost in 1978 and served as the University’s chief academic officer for the next 18 years in the administrations of both Father Hesburgh and Father Malloy. He once described his principal responsibility as “preserving the Catholic character of the University and not being afraid to say it. Some Catholic schools, in adapting to what they thought would be the best way to obtain resources from public agencies, have tried to neutralize or camouflage their heritage. We have not. Interestingly enough, the very fact that we have maintained our self-confidence in what we are has proved to be a positive factor in enabling us to find the resources we need.”


The numerous honors O’Meara received for such commitments include an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1987 and the University of Dayton’s Marianist Award in 1988. In 1991 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2008, Notre Dame’s Mathematics Library was rededicated and named in his honor. 


“It is clear to all of us who thought, wrote, lectured and taught at Notre Dame during the 1980s and 1990s that Tim O’Meara’s tireless efforts raised the quality of the intellectual environment at Notre Dame dramatically,” Hahn said. “Tim’s rigorous commitment to ‘superior scholarship by a superior faculty’ provided significant momentum that has enabled the University’s more recent administrations to continue to promote the pursuit of academic excellence effectively.”


Visitation is at 8:30 a.m. on Friday (June 22), and a funeral Mass will follow at 9:30 a.m. in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus.