The Appalachian Online
October 1 , 1998

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History professor passes away
Dr. Thomas Keefe, a professor in the Department of History for more than 20 years, died of cancer Sunday, Sept. 20

Dr. Michael Wade
Chairperson, Dept. of History

Special to The Appalachian

Thomas Keelin Keefe earned a Ph.D. in medieval history at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1978 and began his career at ASU that same fall. A specialist in the Anglo-Norman period, with abiding interests in the American West and comparative history, Tom achieved a reputation as a top-notch medieval scholar on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Tom’s first book, “Feudal Assessments and the Political Community under Henry XI and His Sons’” was published in 1983.

His latest book, “Henry FitzEmpress: The Making of the Angevin Empire, 1133-1189,” is basically complete. It is a measure of Tom’s intellectual range that his work in progress included not only a translation of the annals of the 12th century historian, Roger of Howden, but also a proposal for a new book, “Kit Carson and William the Conqueror: Studies in Medievalism on the American Far Western Frontier.”

Here at Appalachian, Tom Keefe captivated students, and not infrequently captured them for history, with the force of his personality and his innovative courses. He was a uniquely creative and demanding teacher who insisted that his students actively join with him in an investigation of whatever subject was at hand, and who convinced them that they simply must have this experience.

Three years ago, he persuaded his freshmen that, yes they could, and indeed would, read Paul Johnson’s 1,000-page “Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830,” a brilliant book, but assuredly not typical freshman reading fare, and not even the only book Tom was requiring. It was a measure of his powers of persuasion, and his work ethic and talent, that the experiment was a great success. He and the students worked through the book together. The course evaluation was full of glowing student comments about their shared experience with the Johnson book.

Tom had that rare ability to excite students about learning. He believed that the purpose of the historian-as-teacher, given that most of the audience in any given class was likely to be non-history majors, was to convey to students a sense of the sweeping breadth, intrinsic interest and overriding relevance of human history.

A former student, now a teacher himself, said that, “Though I was a communication major...Tom was the professor I have always considered to be my mentor as well as a friend. I ended up with a minor in history because I set out to take whatever Tom was teaching....” Tom took students under his wing and actively cared about them; the price of his devotion was no more, and no less, than a sincere commitment to learning.

A look at his course titles will give you one additional clue as to why students were attracted to Dr. Keefe. In addition to “The Crusades” and “From Troy to Williamsburg: Archaeology as History,” there was “Comparative Frontiers,” which focused not on usual comparisons of countries, but on the frontiers of medieval Europe and the 19th century American West. Or “Narrative History: The
Journey and the Journal,” which featured a now-legendary class trip to Graceland. “TK” had planned a second edition of that class for this spring, with the journey to be a 10-day expedition across the Everglades.

Tom made lasting contributions to the department’s graduate school, as well. He twice served as Chairperson of Graduate Faculty and was a key member of the Advisory Council. In recognition of Tom’s teaching and scholarship, the department selected him as its Distinguished Professor of History in 1995. The Graduate School conferred upon him its Distinguished Graduate Faculty Award in 1997. There were many other awards and nominations for outstanding teaching, but the real measure of Tom Keefe as a teacher and mentor lies in the extraordinary comments about him by his students, and in the lives that they will lead.

Tom was a good friend, a fine colleague, a remarkable teacher, and a scholar in the best sense of the word. He was also very much a warrior; few people have shown more sustained courage and grace under pressure than he did.

He fought cancer for 14 years and did not allow it to limit him any more than was necessary only when it was necessary. In the process, he enriched many other lives. He faced his challenges with equanimity, gave freely of himself, and lived life to the fullest, and with real style. As he faced a bone marrow transplant some years ago, he told his doctors that he wanted his broadsword in hand during the procedure, remarking that if he was going to die, he wanted to go out in proper fashion.

The History Department would like to think that his passing will provide him with the opportunity to visit firsthand with the medieval monarchs, soldiers and statesmen he made the focal point of his scholarly life. They will find themselves in very good company.

The Professor Thomas K. Keefe Scholarship in History has been created to honor the many contributions of Tom Keefe. Friends, colleagues, and students wishing to contribute may do so care of the Department of History. Checks should be made out to the ASU Foundation with a note that they are for the Keefe Scholarship.