Giants of the Past

Professor Jim Gaston

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Giants of the Past

Professor Jim Gaston

The founding director of the Humanities and Catholic Culture Major reflects on his career.

Summer 2023 | Melissa Zifzal

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Recently retired Professor James Gaston, founding director of the Humanities and Catholic Culture Major (HCC), can’t speak highly enough of the hundreds of students he taught in the program over his 32 years at Franciscan University.

“The story of what these kids have done is astounding,” he says, noting that graduates of the program started schools, earned PhDs, and became priests, religious sisters, lawyers, architects, writers, and much more.

Interacting with them is what he’ll miss most, especially “the friendship that’s part of the journey of the discovery of truth. It’s such a pleasure sharing that with them and having them share with me.”

Unsurprisingly, Professor Gaston’s students think just as highly of him.

Early in 2022, his daughters Mary Grace O’Connor ’15 and Catherine ’17 contacted over three decades of HCC graduates and compiled a nearly 150-page leather-bound volume filled with well wishes and memories. It included photos of student gatherings at the Gaston home, overseas field trips, historical tours of the Ohio Valley, and classroom fun.

Gaston says he was “dumbfounded” to receive this gift. “It was very humbling to read.”

The book’s cover is inscribed with the letters IFWP (“Ideas, Folk, Work, Place”), representing a teaching model he used in his classes to highlight the importance of culture to learning and to personal life. “It is one of the key concepts of the HCC major,” he says.

Each page contains a remembrance of the well-loved professor. “Your fingerprints are all over my life … your influence is literally everywhere,” one student wrote. Another attributed everything about his own teaching style to his former professor.

While Gaston retired from Franciscan in May 2022, he teaches one course now as an adjunct professor. He hasn’t quite decided how he’ll fill his relatively open schedule, though spending more time with wife, Marianne, whom he says always deeply supported his work, and 8 children and 12 grandchildren is top on the list. He also intends to write an introductory book on Christopher Dawson, the famous Catholic historian whose thought largely inspired the HCC liberal arts vision his students treasure to this day.


Melissa Zifzal writes from Wintersville, Ohio.

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