John Langdon shares his love of history with Le Moyne College and the community
By Connie Berry
It’s not what happened but why it happened that drives Dr. John Langdon.
A member of Le Moyne College’s history department since 1971, Langdon is a dedicated historian, author and teacher of everything from Western Civilization to The Age of Anxiety and Global War. He attends St. Ann’s Church in Manlius where the pastor, Father Cliff Auth, happens to be a former student.
Langdon’s love of history began when he was a child. All the discussions while sitting around the dining room table when Langdon was growing up were not lost on the young student.
“My parents were Depression kids,” Langdon explained. “They had the idea that you may not be interested in Hitler, but he was certainly interested in you. We discussed current events at the dinner table as if they were important because they were important.”
Langdon was not exposed to a Jesuit education while growing up in Utica and attending public high school. His only early experience with the Society of Jesus was going up against students from Jesuit high schools in New York City while on the debate team.
“The reputation was that these people were the intellectual elite and being educated by them was a real privilege,” Langdon said. “The Jesuit attitude is that there is no contradiction between faith and reason — a search for truth wherever the truth leads and an open and free inquiry, but with a conviction that where you end up is where God wants you to end up. The truth will lead you to God.”
Langdon’s earliest ambition was to teach — English. He said he had extraordinarily good teachers in both English and history while in high school. With his love of writing, Langdon said he thought he would head in the direction of the English department. When he arrived at Le Moyne College as an undergraduate student in 1963, it became apparent to him that he still loved the stories about the events and people in history. He changed his major and prepared to teach at the college level. And, his position at Le Moyne has allowed him to continue writing. Langdon has authored numerous academic articles and seven books, including the book Against the Sky: The First Fifty Years of Le Moyne College.
Former Le Moyne College President Father Frank Haig, SJ, asked Langdon to put together a brochure for the college’s 40th anniversary. Father Haig is a younger brother of former Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig.
“I knew the history because I had lived it,” Langdon said. The next president commissioned him to expand the brochure into a book with the 50th anniversary in mind. What Langdon discovered was an interesting beginning born at the time of World War II.
“Bishop Foery put out a call to religious orders about the need for Catholic higher education in the diocese. But, he said it has to be co-ed,” Langdon explained. “Well, his mailbox was not exactly overflowing. Only two responded — the Ursuline sisters and the Jesuits.”
There weren’t many co-ed Catholic institutions of higher learning at the time, Langdon said. He considers Bishop Foery “socially progressive” with his concept for Le Moyne.
According to Langdon, Bishop Foery was all set to make the announcement of the formation of the college with a media event on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1941, only another piece of history postponed the announcement — the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The war explicitly impacted the early days of Le Moyne.
“He [Bishop Foery] wanted it built by 1942 but it would not open until 1947,” Langdon said. “He envisioned this place as a school predominantly attended by Catholic men and women who wanted a Catholic education, and then the GI Bill came along.”
The war left its stamp at Le Moyne on everything from the early photos of its first class — the men wore a distinctively short military haircut — to the army surplus furniture used at the college. “A whole chemistry lab was a equipped with army surplus,” Langdon said.
Because Le Moyne was co-ed at an early date, it attracted the cream of the crop of intellectually gifted women, and then later, the same phenomenon was evident during the civil rights era. Le Moyne attracted some of the top African American students from New Orleans, Langdon said. Before long, however, Fordham University in New York City and other Catholic institutions caught up with Le Moyne.
Langdon graduated from Le Moyne with a bachelor’s degree in history with honors in 1967. His honors thesis was entitled, “Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement of 1940.” He earned his doctorate in history in 1973 at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He was a National Defense Fellow from 1967-1970 and his doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Social Implications of Jesuit Education in France: The Schools of Vaugirard and Sainte-Genevieve.”
A stint in the Army Reserves around the time of the Vietnam War gave Langdon the experience of “how large, complex bureacratic organizations work.” He did not want to be part of the Vietnam War in any way, Langdon said, but the overall army experience was beneficial. He would eventually become a fellow in the Scholar/Diplomat Program of the U.S. Department of State. He has also taken part in military briefings to local reserve units.
Langdon’s community service doesn’t involve only Le Moyne or military endeavors. He has also taught with the OASIS program for senior citizen learners since 2002.
“It’s fascinating,” Langdon said. “OASIS is a senior citizens group nationwide and I think Syracuse might be the smallest city involved. Our chapter was founded in 1999, I believe. There is a tremendous variety of courses and we have over 8,000 subscribers and for a city this size, that’s a higher percent of the population than other major cities.”
Langdon teaches an overview of world affairs to up to 550 seniors four times a month. “There is a tremendous appetite in Central New York for this kind of thing,” Langdon said.
Teaching senior citizens is a little different from teaching today’s Le Moyne student, Langdon explained.
“I don’t have to tell them who Dwight Eisenhower is,” Langdon said, “They already know it. I don’t have to explain the Cold War or Khrushchev. We can get right into what these topics mean and how the present day is affected by those events.”
Comparatively, Langdon has Le Moyne students today whose understanding of history is coming from an entirely different perspective.
“My students today don’t remember Bill Clinton except as the husband of Hillary. They were seven when he was president,” Langdon said. “That’s part of the reality of teaching 18 year-olds. What you can expect them to know changes every year. That’s what keeps you young.”
Teaching in a Catholic institution as opposed to a public institution is something that brings at least one unique factor into the picture, Langdon said. If he were to teach in a public college or university, Langdon said he would employ exactly the same methods. What would be different is this: “the conviction that at the end of this is God.”
“There are a lot of people who think Catholic education is indoctrination. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Langdon said. “It is the inner conviction that differentiates Catholic education from public education.”
Langdon still considers it a privilege to be part of the Jesuit community.
“I am incredibly grateful to have spent my career with the Society of Jesus,” Langdon said. “They have befriended me and inspired me for many, many years.”