Father John Francis Bannon, of the Society of Jesus, long-time member of the Conference on Latin American History, and its elected chairman for the year 1955, died in St. Louis after a prolonged illness on June 5, 1986.
He was born in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1905 and was raised in Kansas City. He entered the Jesuit Order in 1922. His training lasted 17 years, and included novitiate years at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri and a year of philosophic studies at Maison Saint-Louis on the Isle of Jersey. He received a masters degree in history from Saint Louis University in 1929.
In the early 1930s, Herbert Eugene Bolton had communicated with Jesuit provincials in the United States instigating a search for graduate students to work in the vast store of materials concerning missionary activities of early Jesuits in colonial Mexico. Bannon was approached by his provincial with Bolton’s suggestion; he accepted the challenge. In 1937, he traveled to the West Coast to begin his studies. He developed a warm and rewarding friendship with Bolton. For each of the semesters he was on campus, Bannon joined the famous “Round Table” seminar, and as he remembered it in later years, the tag “Father” gave way to just plain “Jack.”
For a dissertation topic Bannon chose the Jesuit missionary efforts in Sonora after Kino. He visited that Mexican state in line with Bolton’s ideal of combining field work with the study of archival documents in the Bancroft Library. On completion of his doctoral program, Bannon returned to Saint Louis University to begin a 34-year career as teacher, scholar, and administrator. By his own admission he was to become a “professor-priest,” with teaching and scholarship his highest priorities, although he never abandoned any section of his multifaceted career; for years he said the early mass on campus.
In January 1943, Bannon was named chairman of his department, a position he would hold for 28 years. For many years, he was in his office from early morning to midevening, with a few hours respite for a late lunch and a nap. In the boom years of the mid-’60s, the department over which he presided had more than 100 graduate students and even more undergraduate majors. Father Bannon knew every graduate student personally and monitored each graduate career. He was a stickler for regulations and could be acerbic, but he was also genial and considerate. Only in the rarest cases did he allow a graduate student to fail out of the program, spending unlimited time with those who needed special assistance to complete their course. The result has been a large network of former students teaching in Catholic and secular universities, colleges, and high schools in all parts of the country.
He also pursued an active publishing career. His first book exemplified one of the main currents of his scholarship: texts that would accompany the student through a survey course. Epitome of Western Civilization (Bruce, 1942) consisted of a series of short synoptic essays that “sought to take the human story from Adam and Eve to Adolf Hitler.” Colonial North America: A Short History (Saint Louis University, 1946) was a similar example of historical synthesis.
During the ’40s, he wrote several scholarly pieces, including “Pioneer Jesuits on the Pacific Slope of New Spain” in Greater America: Essays in Honor of Herbert Eugene Bolton (University of California, 1945), and “Black Robe Frontiersman: Pedro Méndez, S.J.” in the HAHR, February 1947.
In 1944, Bannon and Peter Dunne, a fellow Jesuit and Boltonion, were asked by the Bruce Publishing Company to develop a comprehensive Latin American history text. The first edition was published in 1947. In 1977, Glencoe Press published Latin America: Fourth Edition, by Bannon and a new co-author, Robert Ryan Miller.
Bannon’s favorite textbook was probably his two-volume History of the Americas. This had been an unfinished Bolton project. In 1949, the “Old Man gave his blessing, and Bannon worked on the project for the next several years. McGraw-Hill became the publisher, and the two volumes appeared in the spring and autumn of 1952. A revised edition appeared in 1963. This text continued in print until the hemispheric approach to American history lost favor. Through the years, well over 50,000 copies were marketed.
A labor of love, and also a demonstration of the “Battling Bannon,” was Bolton and the Spanish Borderlands published by University of Oklahoma Press (1964). As Bannon explained:
This book grew out of my increasing vexation with several East Coast historians who seemed to tie Bolton’s place in American historiography to the “common history of the Americas” theme, which they insisted on calling “the Bolton thesis.” They seemed to take great delight in knocking down the straw man which they had created. Bolton deserved to be remembered for his prime contribution, that of pioneering the history of the borderlands and of broadening the base of American history with a continental and then a hemispheric approach, neither of which he considered a “thesis.”
In 1970, Bannon returned to the textbook field with his survey, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier: 1513-1821. His final major scholarly work, and one of his three books that remain in print in 1986, was his biography of his mentor. Begun in 1965, it was not published until 1978. The resulting volume was Herbert Eugene Bolton; the Historian and the Man, 1870-1953.
The essays, articles, introductions, compilations, and book reviews produced by Bannon are literally too many to mention. He once counted the journals in which he had published book reviews; they came to 34. An explanation for the large number is the broad scope of his expertise. He was asked to evaluate books on the borderlands and the West, on Latin American, church-related topics and the American colonial period. He could be caustic, but usually would return a volume to the book review editor rather than write an extremely negative appraisal. For example, John Gunther’s Inside Latin America went back, so that “I would not be forced in honesty to begin the review . . . this book has been mistitled: it should have been called ‘Inside John Gunther Inside Latin America’.”
Bannon received a number of visiting professor invitations and accepted as many as he could, preferring those that took him westward. Begular school-year appointments included the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of New Mexico, Marquette University, and the University of Colorado.
From the middle 1940s through the 1960s, Bannon regularly attended the December meeting of the AHA. He made the CLAH his primary affiliation, consciously relegating the American Catholic Historical Association to a secondary position. This hierarchy made sense to a Boltonion. By 1948, he was on the General Committee of the CLAH; he was named to the Board of Editors of the HAHB in 1954. In 1955, he was elected chairman of the CLAH.
Bannon’s retirement was bittersweet. At first, he continued to travel, conduct research and write, but then his health began to fail. In 1973, he received an honorary degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City, and in 1978 his own institution, Saint Louis University, honored him with an Alumni Merit Award. In 1982, in conjunction with the annual spring meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, a group of former graduate students arranged for a session in his honor. These papers formed the core of a festschrift published that year entitled From the Mississippi to the Pacific: Essays in Honor of John Francis Bannon (Northern Michigan University Press, 1982). In 1983, when he was often bedridden due to a severe case of emphysema, he celebrated his 60th year as a Jesuit. In that year his friends, colleagues, and students initiated a drive to establish an academic chair to carry his name in “his” Department of History at Saint Louis University. A fitting memorial, it is correctly inscribed to “Father John Francis Bannon, Scholar, Teacher, Priest.”