Vincent De Santis took up his initial appointment as an instructor in history at Notre
Dame in the Fall of 1949. He completed sixty years of teaching here last fall at the rank
of Emeritus Professor when he offered his popular course on “American Presidents from
FDR to Clinton.” Very few faculty have matched his remarkable record of sixty years of
dedication and service to his students and colleagues at this university.
Born and raised in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, and deeply proud of his Italian heritage, De
Santis early developed his life-long passion for history. He majored in the subject at
West Chester State College from which he graduated in 1941. Immediately upon
graduation De Santis joined the United States Army in which he served until December
1945. He rose from private to captain, and as a member of the Nineteenth Infantry
Regiment of the Twenty Fourth Infantry Division he saw considerable action in the
Southwest Pacific Theater, deploying through Australia on his way to fierce fighting in
New Guinea and in the Philippines. He maintained a diary during these difficult years
and occasionally read from it to his Notre Dame students.
After the war the brave soldier became a gifted teacher and a first-rate historian. The GI
Bill enabled him to study American history at Johns Hopkins University where he
worked with C. Vann Woodward, one of the most talented of the brilliant postwar
generation of historians. He and Woodward began there a fifty-year friendship which
culminated when Woodward came to Notre Dame in 1995 to toast the many
accomplishments of his one-time student at a conference held in honor of De Santis.
Guided by Vann Woodward’s counsel and example, De Santis gravitated to political
history and devoted much of his scholarly work to exploring American political
developments during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. He produced important books
such as Republicans Face the Southern Question (1959) and The Shaping of Modern
America: 1877-1916 (1973 and revised in 1989). These established him as an important
figure in the field. His fine reputation led to his being enlisted to join wonderful scholars
like David Potter, Carl Degler and Arthur Link in producing The Democratic
Experience—a renowned textbook which went through five editions from 1963 to 1981,
and just recently has been reissued.
De Santis’s scholarly work brought favorableattention to Notre Dame. It also led to his being honored in various ways. He won an
impressive Guggenheim Fellowship and held Fulbright Fellowships in Italy, Australia
and India. He was elected president of the Catholic Historical Society in 1964, and in
2007 the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era established the
Vincent P. De Santis Prize to honor the best book published in the field—a fitting
recognition of his own important scholarship.
Rev. Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., the legendary history department chair, recruited
Vincent De Santis to teach at Notre Dame in 1949. The new faculty member’s loyalty to
Notre Dame ran deep, and he spent his whole academic career here, aside from his
visiting appointments and a year’s recall to active military service during the Korean
War. He joined an excellent department where good teaching and research were both
valued. Eventually, De Santis assumed a leadership role in the department. He was
promoted to full professor in 1962 and Fr. Hesburgh appointed him to chair the
department from 1963 to 1971.
He taught literally thousands of undergraduate students
over the decades carrying in his initial years the standard teaching load of four courses
per semester. Students found his courses to be demanding but very rewarding during his
early decades at Notre Dame. He eased the rigorous demands of his courses after he
earned emeritus status in 1982 but his passion for teaching was not dimmed in the
slightest. He relished the opportunity to share his unique and valuable insights with his
students. Some students in recent years have marveled that he had lived through the
whole period he covered in his course on presidents since FDR. They benefited from the
personal recollections he shared in class discussions and from his ability to relate earlier
historical episodes to contemporary events.
In addition to his fine record as an undergraduate teacher, De Santis proved an excellent
and effective graduate mentor. He supervised numerous master’s theses and directed
fifteen doctoral dissertations on a range of topics in American political and diplomatic
history, including mine. I came to Notre Dame from Australia in 1976 to work with the
scholar I then called “Professor De Santis.” We have been firm friends ever since, and I
often have been the beneficiary of his kindness and generosity. I am not alone. Over his
long career Vincent De Santis maintained good friendships with colleagues here at Notre
Dame and with a wonderful group of historians whom he regularly met at professional
meetings all over the country. He worked always to build up a sense of community
within his department and university and within the historical profession to which he so
proudly belonged. Vincent’s generosity is notably evident in his regular financial support
for various activities on campus and in his bequest of a six-figure sum to establish a
graduate fellowship which will be named in his honor.
Rather sadly it seems that men and women who contributed much to the growth and development of Notre Dame can be quickly forgotten upon either their departure or their
death. Perhaps this is the way it will always be as new generations focus on their
contemporary concerns and challenges, and occasionally, succumb to the temptation to
congratulate themselves on all their present accomplishments. Yet, surely it does us good
to acknowledge that we only build upon the efforts of those who preceded us here. We
must regularly acknowledge our gratitude to them, and I am truly glad to recognize here
the important contribution to Notre Dame of my treasured teacher and friend, Vincent P. De Santis.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C. is a professor in the History Department at Notre Dame.