Members of the History@Illinois community mourn the passing of our beloved colleague and friend, Kathryn J. Oberdeck. Kathy joined the department in 1993 as a specialist in US cultural and intellectual history, with a focus on labor and working people. Whether writing about late 19th century urban cultural politics or researching the intersection of public and domestic spaces in the company town of 20th century Kohler, Wisconsin, Kathy always kept the complexities of the men and women who made history at the forefront of her work. She served as Director of Graduate Studies and mentored countless graduate students, formally and informally, shaping their lives beyond measure. Illinois undergraduates, too, have been moved and shaped by her commitment to bringing the history of local communities alive through her pioneering History Harvest course, as well as through all of her other teaching, including in the Odyssey Project. Her connections to and preliminary work on South Africa also informed everything she did, in the classroom and in the community writ large.
Kathy’s commitment to public history, and to service for the common good, is one of her most enduring legacies. She started a Civic Engagement committee in History in 2009 and worked through department programming to steward opportunities for teacher training and public history tours of campus and community life, among many other activities. A stalwart member of the Campus Senate and the Campus Faculty Association, Kathy combined her historical expertise with her deep commitment to democratic ideals and practices, and to social justice in many forms. She was a tireless advocate for diversity as an ongoing challenge to a truly equitable polity. Beyond all these accomplishments, Kathy was a faithful, dedicated departmental citizen. She not only modeled what it meant to do the work, but what it meant to show up in all the rooms where things were happening, and where there was a possibility of bringing about principled change. She was a dear friend to many of us, and we will miss her tremendously. We plan to commemorate Kathy’s life and work in the coming months and years to maintain her legacy in History, at Illinois, and beyond.