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“Dean Phelan was an extraordinary person,” said President Shirley Ann Jackson. “He was a professor, dean, historian, and wise counselor. Above all, he was a builder of community who also realized the value of understanding and documenting our rich history. The legacy he has left behind is as grand as the life he lived.”
Phelan began his long association with Rensselaer in 1959, when he was named the resident Catholic chaplain. Phelan’s legacy to Rensselaer includes building the Chapel + Cultural Center. Opened in 1968, the award-winning Chapel + Cultural Center hosts exhibitions and performances, foreign student gatherings, weddings of every denomination, and is home to Christ Sun of Justice University Parish. Phelan began his tenure as pastor of the parish in 1971, and retired as pastor in 2001.
Phelan, who was named dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS) in 1972 and served in that capacity until 1994, is credited with overseeing the renovation of the Russell Sage Laboratory to bring H&SS onto the main campus, and developing a strong faculty focused on bridging the humanities and technology.
In 1983 he launched a five-year effort to revamp the H&SS Core Program, the courses required of all Rensselaer graduates. Unveiled in 1988, the new curriculum sought to “contribute to the realization of student potential as leaders in the professions and in society at large.” Dr. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called it “one of the most creative and exciting curricular reform efforts” he had seen.
In 2005 the Institute honored his efforts by creating the Thomas Phelan Endowed Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The chair was created to recognize an outstanding scholar who has contributed significantly to the study and understanding of the relationship of material culture to the history and development of society. Langdon Winner, professor of science and technology studies, was appointed to the Phelan Chair in July 2005.
Phelan’s contributions to the community outside of Rensselaer also are numerous. He was the founding president of the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering pride in the local communities that played a major role in the Industrial Revolution. He also served as chairman of WMHT Educational Telecommunications, chair of the Architecture and Building Commission of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, president of the Catholic Art Association, and leader or member of a host of other organizations.
He wrote extensively, on historical theology, American material culture, and higher education. He is perhaps best known for his writings on the American Industrial Revolution, using the Troy area as a model for understanding the implications of industrialization in U.S. history.
Phelan’s work through the years earned him numerous honors. He was elected a fellow of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture in 1972. He was awarded the Albany League of Arts Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Arts, the Albert Fox Demers Medal for distinguished service to Rensselaer in 1986, the first Community Service Award from the Hudson-Mohawk Consortium of Colleges and Universities in 1987, and the Academic Citizens Laureate Award from the State University of New York Foundation at Albany in 1988.
As Rensselaer Trustee Neal Barton ’58 has said, “Few among us, in the history of this school, have so powerfully demonstrated what it means to love and to serve with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
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