Death in the family: Robert Vacca

Author: Notre Dame Magazine staff

The campus lost a committed champion of the underdog in June when ROBERT A. VACCA passed away at age 63. Former students will remember Vacca, who joined the classics department faculty in 1969, as a compassionate and inspiring teacher, someone who could gently correct or change one’s way of thinking without criticizing or humiliating. A specialist in classical Greek language, literature and philosophy, he won the Arts and Letters college’s highest teaching honor, the Sheedy Award, in 1973 and a universitywide Kaneb Award for teaching excellence in 2002. He belonged to a vanishing species: faculty who could obtain tenure by virtue of their teaching ability rather than in combination with published research. As it was, he rose only to the rank of assistant professor. As a friend and former colleague explained it, he was a gifted scholar and Socratic thinker, someone who would engage anyone intellectually, “but just like Socrates, he didn’t write it down.” Instead of publishing he focused on teaching and social justice advocacy, which grew out of his admiration for classical democratic ideals. Last fall while on leave because of his illness, he gave an invited lecture on campus about Athenian democracy in which he described the Athenians’ sense of a place they all shared. He noted that in their world, industrial pollution would have been inconceivable because no one would think of damaging the common space. Vacca was among the most influential members of the editorial board of Common Sense, the campus’s alternative newspaper of liberal opinion and analysis. He successfully battled cancer seven years ago but when diagnosed with a recurrence in the spring of 2003 decided to forego treatment. The self-effacing man (“He would think it was grandstanding to even speak of humility,” a colleague says) requested that no memorial service be held.