The historians

Reflections on the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the true. With a reading list for you.

Between them, historians George Giacomini ’56, right, and Timothy O’Keefe can claim nearly 100 years of teaching Santa Clara students. This year, both men close the books on work in the classroom. But first, they pause to reflect on the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the true. With a reading list for you.

Who’s Who

Timothy J. O’Keefe

Born in Los Angeles in 1939. A.B. from St. Mary’s College in Moraga in 1961, Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1968. With James P. Walsh, he wrote Legacy of a Native Son: James Duval Phelan and Villa Montalvo, and he has edited collections of essays on the European encounter with America and the Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has received both the 1995 David E. Logothetti Teaching Award and the 1989 Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence. Colleague Tom Turley concurs: O’Keefe, he says, has been an outstanding mentor for students and faculty alike, with a calm and unassuming personality. He led the division of history and social sciences (1981–90) and served as interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences (1990–91).

George F. Giacomini Jr. ’56

A storyteller with a keen sense of humor, he was born in San Francisco in 1934. Graduated magna cum laude from Santa Clara. Served in the U.S. Army. Doctoral studies at University of California, Berkeley. Returned to Santa Clara to teach in 1962. Among his many honors: the Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence in 1993; the Paul Locatelli, S.J., Award for Distinguished Service in 2009. With colleague Gerald McKevitt, S.J., he wrote Serving the Intellect, Touching the Heart: A Pictorial History of Santa Clara University. Fr. McKevitt would be the first to describe Giacomini as “Mr. Santa Clara”—for the many ways he’s served the University and, more, for embodying the Christian and humanistic values that Santa Clara prizes. Which he put to use both teaching and serving as dean of students (1973–81) and vice president for student affairs (1978–81), and then assistant to the president (1985–2006).

HIST 11A: Cultures and Ideas- Teaching at Santa Clara

Giacomini: I came in the fall of 1962 as a replacement for Fr. Norman Martin. I was kind of a super teaching assistant at U.C. Davis at the time. The chairman of the department at Santa Clara gave me a phone call and asked me if I wanted a job, and I told him no, I didn’t think so. He said, “Can we at least talk about it?” So I came down. My folks lived in Redwood City, so I spent the night there, and I remember telling my mother as I was leaving the house, “I’m not taking the job down there, because I want to finish things up at Berkeley.” I came home later that day saying I’d taken the job—after I negotiated an increase in salary that they had offered.

SCM: What were your first impressions teaching at Santa Clara?

Giacomini: The University that I encountered as a student when I arrived in 1952 was a relatively small place, with about 1,200 students. My class numbered 200 or so. Enrollment had peaked a few years before and was declining a bit by the time I arrived. The bulge of students who had enrolled at Santa Clara after World War II was beginning to wane.

But when I began teaching 10 years later, the classes were big. Classes in Western Civ were filling the lecture hall at 80 people. Classmates whom I had gone to Santa Clara with as an undergraduate would ask, “What is it like teaching women?” Because it was an all-male school when I was here. Interestingly enough, I became the first history faculty member to assign paperbacks for reading—something other than a textbook. We read Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents for Western Civ. For diplomatic history there was Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

SCM: Tim, this was your first teaching position after getting your doctorate, wasn’t it?

O’Keefe: It was my first teaching position before getting my doctorate too. I was hired for the 1965–66 year, out of graduate school at Notre Dame, when I was still working on my dissertation. I came here as a replacement for Fr. Joseph Brusher during his sabbatical leave, and I was allowed to stay on. I had been at St. Mary’s College for my undergraduate training, and I loved Northern California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area. Santa Clara was kind of ideal.

SCM: I was just talking to our general counsel, John Ottoboni ’69, and he said he took 10 courses with you, George. Which means you’ve developed at least 10 courses, if not more, over the years.

Giacomini: Yes. The survey course in Western Civ, and European Diplomacy—but the bulk were U.S. history courses.

O’Keefe: I probably had about the same. I started with Renaissance and Reformation, Western Civ, and the French Revolution and Napoleon. Then I volunteered to do a course on the Islamic world. Later, to my surprise, a couple of students said it was the best class they ever took at the University.

I’ve taught the history of France and other European countries, and a sequence in the history of England, World War I, World War II, and the Western Culture sequence.

HIST 100: Historical Interpretation- Fifty Years of Change

Summer of ’69: Julia O’Keefe ’67, who later served a decade as university archivist, with husband Tim O’Keefe, right, and George Giacomini
Photo: Courtesy Julia O’Keefe

SCM: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at Santa Clara?

Giacomini: Physical changes, certainly. Expansion across the Alameda, and President Patrick Donohoe just putting up dorms like mad in the ’60s. Another significant change was the professionalization of the place. I say this lovingly, but it went from a kind of mom-and-pop grocery store to a much more professional operation in terms of faculty, course offerings, and the administration of the joint. We have been really lucky in having a string of extraordinarily good presidents.

O’Keefe: I remember thinking when Mayer Theatre was built, “Boy, this University is really making a vault forward.” Just the physical structures made a statement that this place was not going to stay what it was before. I went away for a year and half to teach abroad in the ’90s, and three new buildings were here when I came back. It was incredible to see the campus change so radically.

SCM: Have you noticed any difference in your colleagues?

O’Keefe: Oh yes. The pace was slower, and for faculty the expectations were more modest. The understanding was that your first obligation here was the teaching. Research was certainly expected, but expectations about the amount, the quality, and the venues of publication were different.

SCM: What about the teaching of history? How has that changed?

Giacomini: It’s gotten more complicated. And in some ways more diluted. John Adams has a quote that goes something like: “I study politics and war that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy and their children may study poetry and music.” There’s a progression of necessary learning. I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I still think you need to know politics and economics, especially in the introductory courses, and that’s where I would put emphasis in my classes. But now faculty teaching has branched into not just intellectual history but cultural, social, and gender histories. I don’t want to trivialize what other faculty are doing, but I worry that in the process of enriching the material, we’re losing the foundational events and ideas. Which just means I’m old.

O’Keefe: There are so many new approaches and avenues and areas of interest and investigation. It was bound to affect everything that we do. Both George and I were hired to do most of our teaching in the Western culture or the U.S. survey areas. My bias is still in favor of that approach. We’ve seen the value of students looking at whole eras, when they realize what consequences came from actions that had other factors creating them. To analyze those things in a holistic way can show you what has been happening over time. But it’s great, wonderful fun to have a class that deals with just four years or just one phenomenon and investigate that.

We want to do gender studies. We want to do ethnic studies. We want to concentrate on cultural and intellectual history, but we don’t want to throw away—

Giacomini: —the interrelationship of the West and the United States with the rest of the world.

SCM: What about students—how have they changed?

O’Keefe: That’s hard to answer, because what’s so impressive about our students now is associated with the technology and resources they use, which weren’t available when we first started. I’m dazzled by how fast the students can do things—multitask, and so on. But in terms of their basic core abilities, I think there’s a continuum. Which is not to say there aren’t very obvious differences. When I first came, the students were mainly white and Catholic. Certainly, we see a much richer student body in terms of ethnicity, cultural background, and religious identities.

Giacomini: Another significant change is that we’re filling more gaps in student educations. The state of California has a goofy curriculum for American history. When I teach 19th-century U.S. history now, the last time our students have formally studied that era was when they were in eighth grade. Well, God help us: They’ve got other things on their mind in eighth grade. So it’s brand-new material for a lot of them.

When lecturing, I used to toss out lines from Shakespeare or scripture that I figured everybody knew. Forty years ago, half the class knew what I was referring to. Forty percent knew they should know, and 10 percent didn’t have a clue. Today, 85 percent don’t have a clue, and 10 percent think they should know but don’t, and maybe 5 percent know. This means I don’t do this any more. You can’t have a throwaway line that you have to spend two minutes explaining.

O’Keefe: Some bothersome assumptions are made at the collegiate level about the cultural literacy that students come in with. We know from our experience in the classroom that a good solid survey course in Western culture and American society is not a bad idea. That kind of general knowledge is just not there.

HIST 175: 20th-Century United States Diplomatic History

Giacomini: Why was I drawn to diplomatic history? That’s a tough question, but I think I know the answer now. I grew up in the Cold War. That late-’50s period, we were too old to duck and cover, but impressionable enough to see that diplomacy might make a difference in the way the world was going.

SCM: You arrived here in the fall of ’52. Six months later, Stalin’s dead, and wheels start turning in the Kremlin. By the time you graduate, Khrushchev has given his secret speech.

Giacomini: I just think I’m a child of my times, which is true of a lot of historians: Progressive historians at the turn of the century looked at the malefactors of great wealth, and they saw economics as the explanation for everything—Charles Beard and those kinds of people.

SCM: So what kind of a teacher is George Giacomini?

Giacomini: A storyteller. And they all lived happily ever after.

HIST 139: Special Topics in European History—Ireland

O’Keefe: I was trained as a European historian and specialized in the British Isles. But Irish history wasn’t taught widely. It certainly wasn’t studied as deeply as English history. In fact, most book catalogs or library systems had no section called “Ireland.” It was listed under Great Britain or United Kingdom or the British Isles. I became very interested in it partly because of what was happening in Ireland during the 1960s.

More than that, I grew up in an Irish house. My dad was from Ireland—not far from Blarney Castle and Mallow, a little place called Mourne Abbey. He was an immigrant who came over in 1915. My mother’s family is Irish on both sides, also immigrants. She was born in Arizona, but her mother and father were from Cork, along the coast in Bantry and Glengariff. So there was a kind of natural interest, almost biological.

The 1960s were a time of great animosity in Ireland, in part related to religion, which fascinated me, because I’m very interested in the history of religion and religion in history. When I first taught an Irish history course, there was a terrific response from the students. Faculty members even sat in on the course. It appealed first to students who were themselves of Irish background and wanted to know more about that. Others were interested in modern conflicts—civil war, insurrection, and peace studies.

SCM: When you delivered the Honors Program convocation in 1990, you cited a line from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” as being applicable to the times: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” What about today?

O’Keefe: Boy, there’s a loaded question. Unfortunately, far too true. True in terms of our country and in international terms … and the intensity we see connected with fundamentalist belief in whatever religion.

HIST 189: Special Topics—The Administration

The desk: George Giacomini at work, c. 1973
Photo: Courtesy The Redwood

SCM: You became dean of students at a pretty tumultuous time, in early 1973. There was a fair amount of student discontent, problems in the office, and the previous dean of students resigned during Christmas break.

Giacomini: On the first morning I started, Garland White, who ran the Career Center, came into my office. Pointing to an entrance, she told me, “This door is clear.” I replied, “Okay, but why?” She answered, “Normally there’s a filing cabinet on the other side of the door. But now it’s clear all the way down the hall.” Again I asked, “Why?” Her reply: “In case they block you in and you need to escape.” I thought, “Holy Christmas. What have I got myself into?” If the students were going to sit in, by gosh, I had my underground escape route. However, I was never confronted with a sit-in and never had to use it. Those were exciting days.

SCM: What qualities did you bring to the job?

Giacomini: You had to be willing to listen. You had to be available. I had an open-door policy. You had to be patient. You got yelled at and had to bite your tongue sometimes. But you tried to identify the leaders and talk with them if there was a problem—have a meeting instead of a sit-in. Though when I started, I certainly didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

SCM: You also worked for the president for 21 years. How did that happen?

Giacomini: A phone call again. I keep getting these phone calls. I had been dean of students for 9.75 years—not that I was counting—and I wanted to teach full time again. So I went back to history in 1981, taught full time for a year, and then was asked to take on the Honors Program. In ’85 Fr. Bill Rewak called to ask if I’d be interested in a half-time position as assistant to the president. I hadn’t ever even thought about that, but I knew something about the administration and had done some planning. So I said yes, and that’s what I ended up doing: half-time teaching and half-time administration. Three years later, when Paul Locatelli became president, he asked me to stay on and even gave me some additional duties, so it became a full-time job with him while I still taught half time.

O’Keefe: What George just said about the time-and-a-half job—that’s the old Santa Clara. “Does the institution need me? Do you need me? Sure, I’ll be happy to do that.” That’s the old Santa Clara too.

SCM: And you served as dean of Arts and Sciences, Tim.

O’Keefe: I was acting dean for one year while they looked for a replacement. Before that, I had been division director for history and social sciences for a decade, when we had the Arts and Sciences broken up into three divisions.

SCM: Then from 2000–07, you directed the program in Durham, England.

O’Keefe: I loved it. I crafted two different courses specifically for Durham, and I don’t think anything in my teaching career gave me as much satisfaction and pleasure as that. For students to be in a place and have to write about it—to study Reformation history or British politics and then go out and visit the churches and sites nearby, to eat fish and chips. That kind of wonderful immersion seems to me a perfectly centered learning experience. It’s a shame we can’t give everybody that kind of experience. But we do other things really, really well.

For instance, the University has always had a concern for things other than the technical, the career orientation. Not that it doesn’t address those; it certainly does. But concern for education that forms the mind, engages in dialogue about significant issues, is reflected many different ways in every department.

HIST 197: Capstone Seminar—Retirement?

O’Keefe: Well, I’ve been on phased retirement now for four years. I’ve done a lot of reading I might not have had time for before, and that’s been wonderful. I’ve done some writing. I edited a book and published an article of Irish-American interest. And the rest of the time I’ve devoted to family. I’ve got seven grandkids. And we travel a lot. We have gone to absolutely wonderful places and had a lot of delightful experiences.

Giacomini: I’m going to read all the books that I haven’t read. I hope my eyes hold out. I’ve only got five grandchildren, but three of them are at some distance. The second-youngest grandchild is halfway around the world, 12 time zones away, in beautiful downtown Baku, Azerbaijan.

I recently received a book from a former student who wrote, “Thought you might enjoy this book as part of your retirement reading. Thanks for being an inspiration and role model for decades.” Now this guy, he is a lawyer, but he was a history major. But it’s the non-history people who read books that I always kind of like to think about.

SCM: Do you think that at a certain age a person comes to see that what he or she has lived through is history?

Giacomini: Yeah, they have a history. At 18, you don’t have much history; at 48, you’ve got some history—and there’s a lot of good stuff that’s written too. Again, it’s a story.

SCM: At the same time, one of the realities of being a teaching scholar is you never know quite how you’re shaping the lives of your students.

Giacomini: Remember The Education of Henry Adams: “The teacher affects eternity. He never knows where his influence will end.” Though you don’t think about it, that’s for sure. If you do, I think you’ve got some real problems.

Both professors have delivered the Convocation Address for the Honors Program. Read them here.

Special thanks to Gerald McKevitt, S.J., for contributions from his 2003 interview with George Giacomini.

Ron Hansen M.A. ’95 is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor of Arts and Humanities at SCU and the literary editor for this magazine. His most recent novel, Exiles, appeared in paperback in 2009.

HIST 199: Directed Reading with Prof. O’Keefe

We gave one assignment to Tim O’Keefe this spring: Give us a list of books that you wish every Santa Clara student would read before picking up their sheepskin. “In terms of European history, which is what I’ve been involved in, where do you start?” O’Keefe mused. Nevertheless, he started.

» See Professor O’Keefe’s suggested reading list here

HIST 171: The New Nation

Perched in the corner of George Giacomini’s office is an old Underwood portable typewriter, a miner’s lamp from the north of England, and a Curious George stuffed toy (a gift, that). But front and center on Giacomini’s desk is a portrait of John Quincy Adams.

» Read more about Professor Giacomini’s historical foreign policy hero here

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.