Robert Lippert, who taught English at St. Thomas from 1955 to 1989 and was an activist in civil rights and peace movements, died June 18. He was 94.
Born in Havelock, Neb., Lippert graduated from St. Louis University and enlisted in the Army Air Force during World War II. He met Antoinette Bonafede after the war in Chicago, where they worked on neighborhood integration projects at a settlement house sponsored by Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. They married in 1948 and he taught in Washington state before joining the St. Thomas English faculty in 1955.
“Father (Vincent) Flynn, who was president, hired dad,” said his son, Tim Lippert, a 1976 St. Thomas alumnus. “We first lived in the huts called Tom Town, where the library and OEC are today, and later moved to a house on Cretin Avenue, beyond centerfield of the baseball field.”
Lippert taught at Knoxville College in Tennessee during the 1965-66 academic year, the first St. Thomas professor to participate in a faculty exchange program between four Minnesota private colleges and 33 predominantly black colleges in the South. He also taught the first African-American literature course at St. Thomas, “and that gave him great pleasure,” his son said.
His activism may have been spurred by an experience when he was six years old and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his family’s lawn because they were Catholic.
“I asked my father why they had done it and he replied that the Klan hated Jews, Catholics and Negroes,” Lippert told the Aquin, the St. Thomas student newspaper, in a 1965 profile. “Since that day, I’ve been interested in prejudice and its elimination.”
He also was active in veterans for peace efforts, was among the first St. Thomas faculty members to speak out against the Vietnam War and supported the 1968 presidential candidacy of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had taught at St. Thomas from 1946 to 1948.
Lippert ran as a DFLer for the Minnesota Senate in 1980. “I’m running for the sheer hell of it,” he said, and he later clarified his statement in an Aquin letter to the editor. His candidacy, he wrote, was based “on the assumption that in entering the political arena I will catch hell from some of my opponents, and that I will dish it out in the tradition of Harry Truman.”
Lippert lost the race to Republican Ron Sieloff but was philosophical about the defeat. During the campaign, he joked, he kissed only two babies, “one of whom was a grandchild.”
He once described himself to the Aquin as “Victorian, religious, Orthodox and a Christian humanist – I still believe in the devil.” He defined Victorians as “idealists” but said he also was a realist because Victorians “must appreciate the ideal before they can comment upon reality.”
Lippert most appreciated the classroom experience and engaging students in conversation, his son said. “When St. Thomas went to students ‘grading’ teachers, through evaluations, he didn’t like it at first but grew to appreciate it,” Tim Lippert said. “He loved the feedback from students.”
Survivors include his wife, five children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at O’Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home, 575 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, with a prayers and memories service at 6 p.m. Read his full obituary here.