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Dr. Mayer remembered as historian, scholar

January  21, 2014

Dr. Tom Mayer, professor emeritus of history, who passed away on Jan. 20, is being remembered by colleagues as true scholar and historian.

"He communicated the beauty, and the diligence, scholarship requires," said Dr. Stephen Warren, associate professor of history. "As one of the foremost experts on the Renaissance and Reformation, Tom mastered Latin, German and Italian. His loyalties were to the primary sources and the context in which their authors created them.

"Tom produced translations, legal studies and biographies of prominent, but poorly understood figures from the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of England, Reginald Pole, to the great Italian scientist, Galileo.

"Everyone familiar with this body of scholarship lauded his work ethic, his exhaustive knowledge of the sources, and the linguistic precision with which he interpreted them," said Dr. Warren. "Tom taught me that there is beauty in being committed to one's work. For Tom, being a historian was a calling."

Dr. Jane Simonsen, associate professor of history and women's and gender studies, remembers Dr. Mayer fondly. "He brought levity to our department meetings. His wry humor managed to be both really funny, and, more often than not, deeply insightful."

She added, "Tom was committed to engaging with original sources, and not to rely on others' interpretations of them. This effort to encourage students to truly listen to the past is a crucial part of doing history, taking them outside their own time and places and pushing them to find their own voices as well."

Dr. Mayer earned a bachelor's and master's degree from Michigan State University, and a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He was on the faculty at Southwest Missouri State University from 1983-1985, and he became a member of Augustana's history department in 1985, retiring in 2013.

During his life, he was honored with numerous awards, wrote extensively and traveled worldwide to speak to academic audiences. Among his many honors, Dr. Mayer was the first American scholar to be granted access to the Vatican's Archives of the Holy Office in 1997, and also that year he led an effort on Augustana's campus to start the Center for the Study of the Christian Millennium, a multi-disciplinary academic initiative focusing on European history from 600-1600 C.E.

His research was funded multiple times by Mellon Foundation, and in 1989, Dr. Mayer was named an Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow at Harvard and spent the 1989-1990 academic year at Harvard as a Mellon Fellow, writing a book and teaching a course on Renaissance biography.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and he won the Carl S. Myer Prize, Sixteenth Century Studies Conference. He won two Fulbright Fellowships, the Hanson Lee Dulin Fellowship, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, Newberry Library/Exxon Foundation Fellowship, University of Iowa and Saint Louis University.

In 2009, Dr. Mayer consulted on the PBS documentary "Michelangelo Revealed." He contributed to stories that ran in The New Yorker, The New York Times and numerous scholarly journals, and he authored several books, including "Reginald Pole, Prince and Prophet" and "The Trial of Galileo, 1612-1633."

Recently the Thomas F. Mayer Research Prize was created at Augustana. It is an annual award granted to an outstanding student whose senior research project is both interdisciplinary and based on the careful analysis of sources. The award is designed to encourage students to draw upon an acute awareness of language, context and the analysis of primary sources, and it will honor Dr. Mayer's scholarly interests for many years to come.

a Celebration of Life service for Dr. Mayer will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Quad Cities, 3707 Eastern Ave., Davenport.  Dr. Mayer is survived by his wife, Jan Popehn, and daughter Molly Elisabeth Mayer-Popehn, both of Moline; and two sisters, Virginia Pfrimmer and Tedra Britton, along with numerous nieces and nephews.

Keri Rursch
Director of Public Relations
(309) 794-7721
kerirursch@augustana.edu