Sister Justine Peter Is History

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Stritch Magazine

When asked why she is retiring after 52 years of teaching history at Stritch, Sister Justine Peter, OSF, Ph.D., ’50, offered one of her characteristic colorful and thought-provoking answers.

“I don’t need to be the dog in the manger anymore,” she said, referring to the Aesop’s fable in which a dog stands guard of a hay-filled manger, preventing cattle from eating their food. “I just think it’s time for other people to step in.”

When she left the classroom for the final time in May, Sister Justine took with her a depth of knowledge and gift for teaching that has endeared generations of students and colleagues to her.

“I would set my schedule according to what she was teaching,” said alumna Lisa Bangert, ’90, who refers to Sister Justine as a ‘dynamo.’ “I was drawn by her extraordinary enthusiasm. …I went to college without a clue of what I wanted to do, and just in working with her and taking her classes, I found it fascinating and continue to love history today because of her.”

Bangert said Sister Justine dedicated herself to making history classes about much more than dates, famous people and wars. Her focus on the social, political, economic, religious and cultural contexts surrounding historical events made history interesting and relevant for her students.

Several alumni who took her classes said Sister Justine expected them to pursue knowledge and master history in every course she taught. She prides herself on the rigor she demanded from students during her five decades of teaching and academic leadership in both the Department of History and the College of Arts and Sciences at Stritch. Her tests were legendary.

“She’s probably the most well known for her multiple-choice test, because it wasn’t just A, B, C, D,” alumna Terry (Ihde) Schoessow, ’79, said. “The choices were there, but then her second choices were ‘A and D,’ ‘B and C,’ ‘all except E.’ Students would always joke about a ‘Sister Justine test.’ That also showed what an educator she was. She was getting at the meat of the lesson. …but she really ensured that you knew the material by doing that. We teased her a lot, but she knew what she was doing.”

Her true-and-false questions were no better than the multiple-choice.

“Her true-and-false questions, if you pick one choice, you have to explain why,” said Dr. Mary Duarte, chair of the Department of History and Political Science. “You can’t just say ‘false,’ you have to say why it’s false. She doesn’t let you have a mushy brain.”

Sister Justine watched the University evolve as history unfolded in the world. She has many fond memories and definite opinions on events and decisions made over the years. Some memories stand out from others.

“I loved everything I taught,” Sister Justine said. “But I think the seminar presentations are really a great highlight.”

The senior research seminar is one of Sister Justine’s hallmark classes. Since 1975, she has carefully selected unusual research topics that have challenged generations of history majors as they learn to conduct original research. At the end of each semester, students present their findings at a history department dinner. Past topics have included: “The Social and Economic Effects of Large Gatherings on the Host Cities,” “The Political and Social Role of the Public House Throughout History,” “The Burial Place as Reflection of the Community,” and “Significant Nobodies.”

As impressive as she was in the classroom, Duarte said she is just as much of a presence outside of it as well. Duarte said the way Sister Justine embodies the Franciscan values has made her a living example for students and colleagues alike. But Duarte also honors the way Sister Justine provokes people to look beyond the easy answers.

“She doesn’t just let you make a decision without really thinking it through,” Duarte said. “You may end up with the same decision. But, in her feisty way, she’s going to challenge you to make you critically think. And you might come full circle right to where you started, but, man, you can defend it by the time you get there because she’s made you really think it through.”

Yet for the many ways she truly pushes people past their limits, Sister Justine is beloved.

“Everybody speaks about her with love,” Duarte said. “She’s not one who polarizes people. Even though she makes you challenged and she makes you think outside the box, it doesn’t drive people away. You just love her for it. By the end of the semester they are thanking her for all the work and what they did because they see the benefits of it.”

Next year, Sister Justine plans to stay connected to the University through volunteer work in the Alumni Relations Office. And yet, Bangert believes her former professor and dear friend will continue her educational legacy even outside the classroom.

“She’ll never stop teaching. She will always be a teacher.”

Sister Justine’s professional timeline:

  • 1950: Ph.B., St. Clare College
  • 1955: M.A. in history, Loyola University, Chicago
  • 1956-57: Fulbright Scholarship to United Kingdom
  • 1959: Ph.D. in history, Loyola University, Chicago
  • 1959: Begins full-time employment at Cardinal Stritch College
  • 1964-72: Serves as academic dean

Post-doctoral work: University of California-Davis and Berkeley, Rutgers University, Catholic University of America, University of Colorado-Boulder, Arizona State University, Harvard University

Visiting professorships: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, St. Francis Major Seminary (Milwaukee), Sacred Heart School of Theology (Hales Corners, Wis.)