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Notre Dame Historian Vincent P. DeSantis Dies

Author: Michael O. Garvey

In Memorium

Vincent P. DeSantis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, died Monday (May 30, 2011) at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, British Columbia. He was 94 years old.

A native of Birdsboro, Pa., DeSantis was graduated from State Teacher’s College in nearby Westchester in 1941, enlisting in the U.S. Army the same year.

During the Second World War, DeSantis served in the 24th Infantry Division’s 19th Regiment, rising from private to captain in rank. Throughout ferocious campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines, he kept a diary from which he occasionally read aloud to his students in later and more peaceful years.

Discharged in 1945, DeSantis availed himself of the G.I. Bill and earned a doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University, studying under the pre-eminent American historian C. Vann Woodward, who became a lifelong friend.

A scholarly specialist in American political history and the gilded age/progressive era, DeSantis joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1949 and spent his entire academic career here, taking a year-long leave of absence in 1951 to return to active military service in the Korean War.

A rigorous, though popular teacher who often taught four courses per semester, he chaired the Department of History from 1963 to 1971. He also wrote such influential books as Republicans Face the Southern Question and The Shaping of Modern America: 1877-1916, and was a contributor to the textbook, The Democratic Experience, now in its sixth edition. Officially retiring in 1982, he continued to write and to teach a course on “American Presidents from FDR to Clinton.”

In addition to his undergraduate teaching, DeSantis supervised numerous master’s theses and directed 15 doctoral dissertations on a range of topics in American political and diplomatic history, including that of Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., professor of history at Notre Dame.

“Vincent was rightly proud of his record of 60 years of dedication and service to his students and colleagues at Notre Dame,” Father Miscamble says. “He loved the University and tried to make it a stronger institution. He was a fine scholar, a demanding teacher and a true friend. I am but one of his many colleagues who have been the beneficiary of his kindness and generosity over these past decades.”

Once described by a colleague as “a person who simply loves to teach,” DeSantis was fond of cheerfully disputatious conversation, but adept at distinguishing persons from points of view. He enjoyed many and variegated friendships among his students and colleagues, including with Notre Dame’s president emeritus, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., an officemate of DeSantis when both of them were freshly minted faculty members. His affection for the institution and community of the University is suggested by the regular and generous donations he made to Notre Dame over the years, including a bequest to establish a graduate fellowship.

“Vince was one of the great characters of Notre Dame, and I was blessed to know and work with him for so many years,” Father Hesburgh says. “He was always on the side of the angels.”

Father Miscamble will preside at a funeral Mass on June 18 at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Birdsboro. Condolences may be sent to: Vincent DeSantis Jr., 41 Cottage St., Wellesley, MA 02181.

Originally published at