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Religion scholar Kroger's death saddens campus

07.25.17
By: Mark Tarnacki
Joe Kroger

Joseph Kroger

A well-attended prayer service on Thursday afternoon, July 20, in the Chapel honored the life and career of Joseph Kroger, who died July 19 from complications arising after heart surgery. His unexpected death shook and saddened Kroger’s wide circle of admiring colleagues and friends in the Saint Michael’s College community, which he served as professor of religious studies for 45 years.

Kroger retired only months ago. His children, siblings, grandchildren and extended family, who had come to be with him as his health was failing, were present at Thursday’s quickly organized late-afternoon service led by Rev. Brian Cummings SSE ’86, director of Edmundite Campus Ministry. A funeral was to take place later in Chicago where Kroger’s late wife, Althea, is buried.

The purpose of Thursday’s service, Cummings wrote in an email to the community earlier in the day, was “to pray for Joe’s eternal rest and to express sympathies to family members before they leave Burlington.” He continued, “Joe’s son, Andrew, and daughter-in-law, Carol, his brother Bob and his sisters, Mary Ann and Katherine will join us for the prayer service.” Those family members and others lingered outside on the Chapel steps after the service to speak with and greet those who attended.

“It was a real testimony to Joe,” said Ray Patterson, chair of religious studies, “that less than 24 hours after Joe’s death, more than 100 people were present for this service within hours of hearing the news – and this despite summer vacation travel for many faculty and staff, and with students being off campus.”

Patterson, who read from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for Thursday’s service, said after that Kroger started teaching at Saint Michael’s in 1972, the year the Department of Religious Studies was created. Patterson explained that theology studies had been central at the College since its founding, but Vatican II and a subsequent teaching role for Rabbi Max Wall, a forward-thinking good friend of the College, had contributed to Saint Michael’s beginning about that time to approach the study of religious topics through a wider lens.

It all made way for Kroger, a onetime Marianist brother from Ohio, to bring to campus his interest in interreligious dialogue, which was a major outgrowth of Vatican II (just seven years prior at that time); Kroger’s specialization was in Buddhism and Hinduism, but he also taught Political Liberation Theology and Ethics classes through the years.

Fr. Cummings spoke of the many ways Kroger served the campus community and wider community at large, including as moderator of the faculty assembly --and also how his social justice activism included  involvement with the El Salvador Human Rights Commission. Assisting Cummings during the prayer service was Edmundite Deacon Michael Carter ’12. Patterson later noted that both of those Edmundites had taken two classes apiece from Kroger during their student careers, even though they were a generation apart.

Reading from the Book of Wisdom during the service was Heidi St. Peter '96 of the academic support staff. Deacon Carter read the Gospel, and Campus Music Minister Jerome Monachino ’91 offered accompaniment on the hymns: "Be Not Afraid” and “Amazing Grace," along with the Psalm “Shepherd Me, O God.”

Wide interests, well-traveled

Patterson said Kroger also was known for accompanying students on study travels to Mexico, and to Japan with colleague Hideko Furukawa through the years, as well as joining Campus Ministry pilgrimages to religious sites in Quebec.

Fr. Cummings and Patterson both also mentioned Kroger’s firm support for the Edmundites’ St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte, along with his enthusiastic participation in Morning Prayer during those Quebec pilgrimages. Kroger’s faith journey had included practicing Buddhism, they noted; also, Patterson said, his friend had a deep scholarly interest in Our Lady of Guadalupe, and was fascinated with the Madonnas in Mexico as a focus of his studies. Patterson added that Kroger “was an incredible contributor to the Religious Studies Department, serving as chair and teaching literally thousands of students.”

Dean Jeffrey Trumbower, another departmental colleague, said Kroger “was a valued mentor to all current religious studies faculty members and countless students -- including Gen. Joseph Dunford ’77, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke at the recent Commencement here.”

“Joe was a beloved friend and colleague, scholar,” the dean said, noting that Kroger’s scholarship included the 2012 book Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico (Ashgate), co-authored with Patrizia Granziera. Kroger also wrote a number of articles, some on the thought of philosopher Michael Polanyi. “Joe was a long-time active member of the Polanyi Society associated with the American Academy of Religion,” Trumbower said. “He was also a member of the Catholic Studies group of the AAR …. and he worked for social justice in a variety of ways, most notably during the crises in Central America in the 1980s.” In 1988, Kroger was just the third faculty member to win the annual Faculty Award for Service (now known as the Norbert Kuntz Service Award in memory of the late history professor.)

During the prayer service, Fr. Cummings quoted one of Kroger’s longest-standing colleagues and friends, veteran Economics Professor Herb Kessel, who wrote these words in an email about Kroger: “He was such a bright, caring, vibrant, generous and thoroughly decent person. And he devoted his life fully to the College. Joe was such a fine man. He will be missed by many. He was a good friend to many of us.”

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