Professor and Author Joseph M. Hernon Jr.

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007

Joseph Martin Hernon Jr., 70, a history professor and author of a study of character in the U.S. Senate, died of cancer June 29 at his home in Boston.

Dr. Hernon, a professor of Irish history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for more than 25 years, attracted attention with the publication of his 1996 book "Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990."

"Too much of our history centers on presidencies," he wrote, "yet some senators who served unbroken terms for two or three decades were more politically significant than many presidents."

He contrasted pairs of senators serving in the same era (Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond for the 1950-1990 period) in what Donald A. Ritchie, then the associate historian of the Senate Historical Office, in a 1997 review in Roll Call called "a sprightly account of the personalities who wielded political power on Capitol Hill." Theo Lippman Jr. of the Baltimore Sun noted that Dr. Hernon had "a good idea for a study of the Senate. . . . To say that Professor Hernon's book is a miss is not to dismiss it. It's a good book. He writes well, is thoughtful and is well-read in Senate history and lore."

Before Dr. Hernon taught at U-Mass., he was Catholic University's most prominent critic in the mid-1960s. He spoke out publicly on several matters, most notably when he claimed that the university refused to hire a professor because he was not Catholic. The university said the candidate was turned down not because of his religion, but because he was divorced and remarried.

Dr. Hernon's colleagues on the graduate faculty censured him for making the dispute public. He left for a one-year position at the University of Maryland and then went on to Massachusetts.

A native Washingtonian, Joseph Martin Hernon Jr. graduated from St. Mary's Seminary in Catonsville and Catholic University. He worked for Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon (who during his tenure was a Republican, a Democrat and an independent) and as an elevator operator in the House while still in school.

As a college student, he worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. In 1970, he helped organize a U-Mass. faculty-and-student movement to impeach President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

He told Brian Lamb of C-SPAN's "Booknotes" program in 1998 that he was an independent voter who leaned Democratic, casting ballots for Gerald Ford, John Anderson, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader. "The only votes I regret casting are the votes for winners, like Lyndon Johnson in '64," he said.

He received a doctorate in history in 1963 from Trinity College at the University of Dublin. He taught at Ohio State University before moving to Washington, College Park and Amherst. He also was a visiting professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, the University of Dublin and Georgetown University.

His signature course at U-Mass. was "The Irish Experience," which drew large numbers of students over the years. He also taught "The Life and Trials of Oscar Wilde" and "New Approaches in History: The Mystery of Jack the Ripper."

In addition to his 1996 book, he wrote "Celts, Catholics and Copperheads: Ireland Views the American Civil War" (1968) and co-wrote "The Irish Experience: 200 B.C.-A.D. 1988" (1989).

Dr. Hernon retired in 1995. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and received a Theodore C. Sorenson Fellowship from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Survivors include his partner of 10 years, Matthew Griffing of Boston, and a brother.

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