Professor writes tribute to deceased DU faculty, staff

“Want a fossil?” asks an eager Bernard Spilka, professor emeritus of psychology and University of Denver employee for more than 50 years.

Spilka’s office is filled with rocks, which is not something one expects from a renowned psychology scholar. He’s also got sticky notes with mathematical notations on his bookshelves, which are jam-packed with tomes he’s written and updated, including the landmark Psychology of Religion, which is in its fourth edition.

Spilka is taking his 12th course in biology and has almost achieved the equivalent of a mathematics master’s degree. And, yes, he loves geology and fossils.

Little wonder, then, that this facile mind decided to tackle a history of DU.

“Other institutional histories cover chancellors, buildings and programs. I became distressed because a lot of terrific people have worked here and they’re only on lists. I’m on a few lists. But I wanted to share the history of DU through its people.”

After five years of “working like hell,” Spilka has completed The Heart of the University of Denver: A Human Approach to the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, An Appreciation of Faculty. It includes profiles of 189 deceased faculty members, for which Spilka interviewed more than 122 people and spent myriad hours in Penrose Library, where several copies are available.

DU Psychology Professor Daniel McIntosh, a former student of Spilka’s, says Spilka does have a passion for DU but cares about all people, period.

“Bernie is passionate about people from all places and all walks of life,” says McIntosh. “I seldom go to a psychology conference where someone doesn’t note the University of Denver affiliation on my name tag and ask, ‘How’s Bernie?’ Then they often tell me a story about some kind, helpful or inspiring action he’s done.”

McIntosh says DU people were an obvious topic for Spilka to research.

“Bernie knows how central people are to what a university does and what it becomes. He has spent decades working with students, staff, faculty and administrators.”

Looking through the manuscript, Spilka shakes his head and says, “There are a lot of great people in here.”

The compendium covers faculty and staff who worked at DU as far back as 1880 and even includes two people who passed away in 2007. At one point, Spilka discovered that he was profiling a man who hadn’t died.

“I discovered a great anthropologist who had worked here, Edward T. Hall, and I wrote the whole story and realized it had gaps. I thought, ‘Could this guy be alive?’”

Sure enough, Spilka ultimately found Hall quite alive in New Mexico.

Spilka says he was also asked by a fellow DU professor, “Am I in it?” to which Spilka responded with his characteristic wit, “No, you’re not in it. If you want to be in it, I’ll have to kill you first.”

Spilka calls it his “personal tribute” to the faculty and staff of the University.

“These people, overwhelmingly, had so much to commend them,” he says. “They were war heroes and tremendous scholars. This was a labor of love for me.”

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