Vincent P. De Santis (1917–2011)
Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC, November 2011
Honorary Life Member of the AHA and Historian of the Gilded Age
Vincent P. De Santis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, passed away on May 30, 2011, in Victoria, British Columbia. He was 94.
Born and raised in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, and deeply proud of his Italian heritage, Vincent De Santis early developed his lifelong passion for history. After graduating from Birdsboro High School he worked as a manual laborer to earn money for college and then attended West Chester State College, from which he graduated in 1941. Upon his 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 19th Regiment of the 24th 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. Even during these difficult years, he maintained a diary which he had begun in college and from which he later read to his Notre Dame students. He also was recalled to duty during the Korean War.
The GI Bill enabled Vincent De Santis to pursue graduate studies in American history, initially at Harvard and then at Johns Hopkins University, where he worked under the direction of C. Vann Woodward. 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. His revised dissertation became his first book, Republicans Face the Southern Question: The New Departure Years, 1877–1897 (1959), a most notable contribution. He was also the author of The Shaping of Modern America: 1877–1920 (1973, revised 1989). These established him as an important figure in the field. He also published numerous essays and articles and was one of the co-authors of the noted textbook The Democratic Experience, which was published in five editions from 1963 to 1981.
De Santis took up his initial appointment as an instructor in history at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1949. Although he moved to emeritus status in 1982, he continued to teach at Notre Dame until 2009. Very few Notre Dame faculty have matched his remarkable record of 60 years of dedication and service to his students and colleagues. He taught literally thousands of undergraduate students, who found his courses demanding but very rewarding. 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 15 doctoral dissertations. His doctoral students were the beneficiaries of his kindness, his high scholarly standards, and his continuing interest in their work.
Vincent De Santis held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960–1961 and also held Fulbright Fellowships in Italy, Australia, and India. He was elected president of the Catholic Historical Association in 1964. In 2007 the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era established a prize in his name to honor the best book published in the field, a fitting recognition of his own scholarship. He was truly dedicated to the profession and attended annual meetings of various associations for decades, including the American Historical Association which he joined in 1946. This allowed him to maintain his connections with his many friends and valued colleagues. He enjoyed remarkably good health until his last days and he always remained engaged with his historical projects.
A truly generous man, De Santis provided assistance to a range of institutions and individuals, especially to Notre Dame. He notably provided for a graduate fellowship in the department that was his academic home for so long. He also gave significant support to a Franciscan orphanage in the Philippines and to other charities. His loyalty to friends, genuine kindness and real faith marked him. He was buried in his hometown of Birdsboro to which he remained forever attached.
Vincent De Santis is survived by his four sons, Vincent, Jr., Edmund, Philip, and John, and by four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
—Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC
University of Notre Dame