Kathryn J. Oberdeck (January 18, 1958–June 8, 2022)

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Kathy Oberdeck: scholar, teacher, activist

Kathy was a passionate fighter against all forms of inequality. She combined an unwavering commitment to the highest intellectual standards with a selfless dedication to community and family. She was a prolific historian of poor and working-class people, particularly their cultural lives. Kathy made it clear that the stage, the street, the church pew, and the trades council were all public spaces where ordinary people both made culture and contested it.

As her friend and colleague Antoinette Burton noted, Kathy “always showed up” when there was social justice work to be done. Her commitment to social justice was based in both her religious and her political commitments. Friends teased her about being Champaign-Urbana’s only Lutheran Marxist. Impatient with any type of pretense, she turned her keen wit on any sign of arrogance. Her activism and scholarship brought her legions of friends here in C-U and throughout the world. We all remember her as a loving and devoted mother to daughters Fiona and Cara, and to her husband William Munro, a political science professor and scholar of southern Africa.

Raised in California and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, she developed a life-long passion for the study of class and race but also loved music and hiking around the state and elsewhere. She received her PhD in American Studies from Yale, where she met William. After a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, Kathy joined the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joining a thriving program in US and comparative labor history. In 2021, the university recognized her achievements in research, public outreach, and pedagogical innovation by appointing her Leslie A. Watt Professorial Scholar.

Kathy had deep family roots in the Midwest, as much of her extended family remains in Wisconsin, but she also developed a deep attachment to South Africa. She made frequent visits there with William and her daughters to visit William’s family and for his and her own research.

Kathy’s teaching was inspired by her research and her commitments to social justice. Across a thirty-year teaching career, she taught legions of undergraduates in the modern US history survey and advanced courses in US working-class history and intellectual and cultural history. In the Odyssey Program, she taught courses in the humanities to low-income adults in the local community. In all of her classes, students learned how the lives and experiences of ordinary people could serve as a lens through which to approach the most important themes and problems of US history. She also taught a graduate Social Theory class, demystifying the likes of Weber, Marx, and Foucault for generations of grateful students. Kathy was beloved by graduate students as a dedicated, compassionate, and wise mentor. She was the one who always showed up for them—in the seminar room and on the picket line—someone they could turn to when they most needed support. Her students continue to spread her vision of engaged scholarship in positions across the academy and in labor organizations, as well as other roles.

Throughout her career, Kathy’s work in the academy was inspired by her determination to make all the communities with which she engaged better, more inclusive, and democratic places for all. She carried on this work in the History Department; across campus as a stalwart member of the Academic Senate, where she specialized in issues of inclusion and academic freedom; and in our union, the Campus Faculty Association, which she served as an elected officer and a member of the executive committee. She was tireless in our collective bargaining campaign carried on under the the auspices of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. A staunch supporter of the Graduate Employees Organization, she served as a delegate to the Campus Labor Council and to the Champaign County AFL-CIO.

Over the past decade, Kathy became the driving force behind the creation of a multi-faceted Public History program, the first of its kind at the University of Illinois. Working with students and members of the LGBTQ community, she created digital archives of the local Urbana-Champaign drag community and of AIDS activism. This work inspired an exhibit at the Spurlock Museum of AIDS quilt panels from Central Illinois. Through her public history work, Kathy became involved in Champaign County health issues and with groups concerned about environmental racism in minority neighborhoods. In spring, 2022, she received the Campus Award for Public Engagement in recognition of her pioneering work to bridge the campus-community divide.

A historian and citizen with an abiding commitment to community and place, Kathy was widely loved. We will remember for her scholarship and community work and above all for her example to us on how to live a full and caring life.

Jim Barrett is a historian of class, race, and ethnicity in the United States and author of From the Bottom, Up and the Inside, Out: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Working Class History (2017).

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