In memoriam: Thomas J. Schlereth, American studies emeritus professor

Author: Dennis Brown

In Memoriam Feature

Thomas J. Schlereth, a longtime professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of a widely read in-depth history of the University, died Saturday (Nov. 11) at Ernestine M. Raclin House for hospice care in Mishawaka. He was 82.

The oldest of five children and raised in the north hills of Pittsburgh, Schlereth enrolled at Notre Dame in 1959 and graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in history. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and his doctorate at the University of Iowa.

Schlereth returned to his undergraduate alma mater in 1972 and spent the rest of his professional career on the American studies faculty at Notre Dame, teaching and conducting research in American cultural, urban, landscape and architectural history, as well as material culture studies.

John T. McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University and former I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said: “Tom’s innovative reviews of museum exhibits, essays and books on material culture and histories of botanic gardens — and trees on the Notre Dame campus — delighted and inspired readers. All forms of history, and the people who created them, mattered to Tom, and this commitment to the past and his own students reflected his generous spirit.”

As a student at Notre Dame, Schlereth led tours of the campus. That experience was reflected in his popular 1976 book, “The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus,” in which he used more than 430 photographs, maps, lithographs and architectural drawings to lead readers through six campus walking tours to illuminate the University’s mission, leaders, historical moments, athletics triumphs and campus traditions.

Schlereth took a similar approach in his teaching. For a course titled Building America, he walked with students across campus to help them better understand Notre Dame’s history and architecture. In a story published in 2006 by the College of Arts and Letters, he said: “It’s a dictum of my teaching. Get the students out of the classroom. If you get your students into the world, they can learn to see in a new way.”

Including his portrait of Notre Dame, Schlereth was the author of 15 books and wrote more than 80 articles for scholarly and popular journals. In observance of the University’s sesquicentennial, Schlereth published two booklets: “A Spire of Faith,” which chronicles the history, art and artifacts of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and “A Dome of Learning,” an examination of the educational, cultural and social history of the University’s Main Building. He was the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and grants, including two National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowships.

“Through his many publications and associations with scholars across the country, Tom Schlereth helped put Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies on the map and become nationally recognized,” said Robert Schmuhl, the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Journalism. “In addition, his work on the University’s history will be valuable to anyone in the future who plans to write about Notre Dame.”

Schlereth is survived by his wife, Wendy, the former director of University Archives at Notre Dame, as well as son Lars (Alexandra) and grandson Gustav.

He was remembered in a private service. Contributions in his name can be made to the Raclin House.



Originally published by Dennis Brown at on November 16, 2023.