September 05, 2021

Department of History Mourns a Much-Treasured Colleague

The Catholic University of America’s Department of History is saddened by the recent death of Thomas N. Tentler, a distinguished historian of late-medieval and Reformation history and an Adjunct Ordinary Professor of the Department at the time of his passing.

A native Midwesterner, Tom earned his A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard, and joined the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1963.  He enjoyed a distinction to which all historians aspire but very few attain: that of writing a book so seminal that it changes its field and remains central to it, decades after its publication.

Katherine Jansen, Ordinary Professor of History, comments: “I was delighted when Tom Tentler joined our faculty, as I was (and still am) a great admirer of his classic book, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (1977), which took a very complicated subject and contextualized it magnificently.  Although he was interested in the theology and theory of confession, as a historian he was also interested in showing how as an institution it had developed over time and answering the question of how it came to occupy such an important place in the social world of the later Middle Ages.  Tom was a scholar who wore his erudition lightly, characterized in person with a sly dry wit and a twinkle in his eye.  He was a wonderful addition to our ‘happy few’ and will be very much missed.”

After his retirement from Ann Arbor in 2000, Tom moved to Washington: his wife, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, had joined the Department of History as an Ordinary Professor of American Catholic history in 1998 (and has been Professor Emerita since 2014).  Together they made a warm new home on Capitol Hill, and could often be spotted at Eastern Market, shopping in preparation for the culinary occasions for which Tom was rightly noted, warmly welcome gatherings with family and friends.  The Department was delighted to appoint Tom as an Adjunct Ordinary Professor, and he embraced his new colleagues with equal delight, serving on dissertation committees and becoming a regular at our colloquia.

Tom’s career also highlights the ways a gifted mentor and colleague can touch so many other, intertwined lives.  As one example: Valerie Kivelson is a member of the University of Michigan’s History faculty, and she also holds the Thomas N. Tentler Collegiate Professorship.  The Collegiate Professorship is a distinction awarded by Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts: the Professorship’s recipient chooses the name associated with it, in order to honor a person associated with the University.  Professor Kivelson recalls: “It took me all of about five seconds to decide I wanted to name mine in honor of Tom. I am a historian of early modern Russia. Tom, in his inimitable way, welcomed me to the department, and he and Leslie welcomed my husband and me into their house and their charmed circle of interesting, dynamic friends. They became dear friends and mentors, models of how to be scholars and human beings.”

As another example: Tom was mentor to Robert Schneider, a historian of early modern France, during Rob’s time as a graduate student at Ann Arbor.  Rob subsequently became a faculty member of Catholic University’s Department of History from 1990 to 2005 (and its Chair from 2002 to 2005), before moving on to Indiana University and the editorship of the American Historical Review.  Rob reflects: “I think I might be the only person to have been Tom’s advisee and student (at the University of Michigan) and (much later, at CUA) his colleague as well.  And thus I can attest not only to the many virtues that endeared him to so many across the years, but also to this: with Tom, what you saw was what you got.  In an academic world often characterized, alas, by pretense and self-inflation, he was unfailingly himself – smart and terribly learned, to be sure, but also always appreciative of the accomplishments of others and refreshingly self-aware.  Tom’s erudition was formidable indeed, and nowhere on display more than in Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation: the book has yet to be surpassed, as evident in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, where the eminent Reformation scholar Eamon Duffy cited it prominently.

“Tom was a good listener – a thoughtful listener, who, unlike many of us academics always quick on the draw, would usually meet your comment with a pause, as if to mull over what you said, give it the consideration it would not always deserve, before offering his response.  He was a man of deep feelings – and he wasn’t afraid to show them.  A consummate scholar and a downright lovely guy, he was a true mensch.

As a final example: legal historian Charles Donahue has been a professor at Harvard Law School since 1980, and before that he taught at the University of Michigan Law School, where he met Tom Tentler.  He recalls: “Tom and I taught a course at Ann Arbor under the auspices of the Medieval Studies Program called ‘Law, Morals, and Society’. I did a unit on marriage; Tom did one on witchcraft; another colleague did one on homicide. At the time, I was very new at teaching, had some idea how to teach law, and no idea how to teach history. I’ve been teaching history to mixed classes of law students and undergraduates ever since, and to the extent that I have any idea how to do it, it is from what I learned by watching Tom. I still can’t draw the students out the way Tom did. It was really quite amazing how he was able to get the students to come up with ideas that they never knew they had.”

Michael Kimmage, Ordinary Professor of History and Chair of the Department, adds “We in the History Department mourn the passing of Tom Tentler, who was for many years an esteemed member both of our department and of the Catholic University academic community.  With his typical clarity and sense of humor, he shared so much of his vast erudition with faculty and students. We will miss him greatly.”