Fr. Francis Paul Prucha, SJ: A Reminiscence

Phil Naylor has been a professor of history at MU for many years. But in the 1970s he was a graduate student here. During that time he came to know the late Fr. Paul Prucha very well. In honor of Father Prucha’s death last week, Phil offers this recollection.

When my dissertation director, Dr. David Gardinier, and I planned my semester schedule as a first-year doctoral student, he told me that I should take Father Prucha’s seminar in the American West. As a doctoral punk, I responded that “it’s not in my field” and that I was already taking the mandatory Philosophy of History course also taught by Father Prucha. (Wasn’t one course with rigorous Father Prucha enough?!) My director’s response was terse but included an inscrutable smile: “It would be good for you.” Dr. Gardinier was absolutely correct. Philosophy of History became one of my favorite courses. In particular, I also learned a lot in the American West seminar about editing documents as I studied Ute Indian treaties of the 1860s and the roles played particularly by Chief Ouray and Kit Carson. Indeed, I began to compare French colonial policies in Algeria with US-American Indian relations. These courses led to enduring friendships with my peers and especially my professor.

Fr. Francis Paul Prucha, SJ, 1921-2015.

Fr. Francis Paul Prucha, SJ, 1921-2015.

I also began to learn more about Father Prucha’s interests, especially in art. (Father also had keen interests in architecture and design and was quite impressed by the History Department’s new offices in Sensenbrenner Hall.) He loved abstraction and especially Stuart Davis’s composition of forms and color. We have some of Father Prucha’s Stuart Davis paper cut copies in Sensenbrenner Hall (third floor). (When he prepared to move from the Jesuit Residence to Saint Camillus, he was going to throw them away. I asked if I could have them. He agreed.) When I traveled I would bring him brochures from art museums, a favorite being the Phillips Collection, which he visited often when researching in Washington, D.C.

My wife Kitty and I particularly enjoyed Father Prucha’s two-year tenure as Gasson Professor at Boston College in the 1980s, when I taught at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. We listened to his public lectures and enjoyed dinners with Father and his friends. I nominated Father Prucha for an honorary degree from Merrimack College; one of the co-recipients was Michael Dukakis.

Several weeks ago, Athan Theoharis and I visited Father. We found him in good spirits and, yes, his wit was sharp too. I’ve learned from Rose Petranech, an ex-MU administrator and great friend of Father’s, that he continued to exercise his wit with the Saint Camillus staff until he “fell asleep,” to use the expression of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Father Prucha’s exceptional discourse and practice in class impressed and inspired. (His classes were carefully crafted; every word meant something.) Beyond academics, I also picture a nonagenarian meticulously and patiently creating complex

Two of Fr. Prucha's polyhedrons, now displayed in the history department.

Two of Fr. Prucha’s polyhedrons, now displayed in the history department.

polyhedrons to decorate his apartment and his community and to give as gifts. As other students of his can attest, it was such a privilege to have Father Prucha as a professor and friend—an inimitable experience.

The History Department and University Archives organized a celebration on 19 May 2011, held at the Francis Paul Prucha, S.J. Reading Room in the Raynor Library to celebrate several of Father Prucha’s milestones: his 90th birthday; the 70th anniversary of his graduation from River Falls State Teachers College; the 60th anniversary of his entering the Jesuit Order; and the 50th anniversary as a member of the Department of History.

These were my remarks at that time:

Thank you for joining University Archives and the Department of History in our celebration of Father Francis Paul Prucha of the Society of Jesus, Pulitzer Prize nominee, author of twenty-plus books, teaching award winner, holder of numerous honorary degrees, honored as one of Wisconsin’s great literary figures by the Milwaukee Public Library. He is Marquette University’s greatest historian.

To those of us who were privileged to be his students, he set unattainable standards of scholarly and teaching excellence. Nevertheless, what made Father such a great professor is that he inspired us and, of course, still does, often in subtle and not too subtle ways, to reach those standards. He expected us and expects us to try. Quoting Henri-Irenée Marrou, a philosopher of history highly admired by Father Prucha, we learned that “history is a struggle of the mind, an adventure.”

Many graduate students had, however, a pathological fear of Father Prucha. I never did. Indeed, I discovered a man who was willing to critique, yet encourage, my photography and who enjoyed discussing art. Indeed, I would discover him in the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum on Sunday mornings. Of course, I also observed his exercise of his wit. We are not talking about a dry wit, but one which is Saharan in its aridity. There was also another side to Father Prucha that I witnessed. We coincidentally visited a mutual friend who was hospitalized. When the patient mentioned how much he liked Father Prucha’s sweater, Father took it off and gave it to him.

I know that many of you have similar stories to tell. But because of Father Prucha, I danced with Ute Indians in Colorado, paid special attention to Stuart Davis’s abstract art, and wrote books that I hoped he would admire. Typically, he photocopied a page of my recent book surveying North African history and marked it up informing me that I had over-quoted. I loved it. It was perfect. It had to be, because it was and is Prucha.

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