Faculty Spotlight Dr. Denise Damico 2020


Editor's note: Dr. Denise Damico thinks of herself not as a teacher of history, but rather as an evangelical missionary for the cause of learning History. Her passion lies in showing others that learning about the past can make the world a better place today and in the future.” This profile of Dr. Damico, was shared by her colleague Dr. Thomas Woods. 

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Denise Damico
Associate Professor of History, Department Chair

Confucius’ declaration to “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” rings as true today as when he first postulated the precept.  Dr. Denise Holladay Damico’s choice of profession, however, is not only a reflection of her intellectual love for history but it also represents an extension of her life’s greatest influencers and dearest familiar connections; which, ultimately, may take even the great Chinese philosopher and politician’s assertion to a new level.

Denise’s SFU teaching career began in 2009 but her love of history’s vivaciousness, its ability to transport a person to another place in time, its ability to establish connections between souls and generations of people, began while literally seated at the feet of her grandmother “Mema.”  A child during the Great Depression, and a masterful storyteller, “Mema,” told the tale of the adversity Denise’s family faced during the severe, worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, in a way that Denise found simply irresistible. Inspired by the trials, tribulations and tenacity of her Cajun French familiar roots in Louisiana and Texas, Dr. Damico majored in history at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she both earned her undergraduate degree and composed her honors thesis on issues she first learned about from her grandmother’s familiar reflections.  

Denise with Mema and Aunt Dorothy

While Dr. Damico credits her grandmother with lighting the spark of her love of history, she tips her hat towards her mother for being “the greatest teacher” that she ever encountered.  An English teacher by trade, Denise’s mother instilled in her a lifelong love of learning that continues today. Denise emulates her mother’s passion for quality teaching with unbridled zest and enthusiasm. When asked what motivates her as a teacher Dr. Damico responded that she thinks of herself not as a teacher of history but rather “I think of myself as an evangelical missionary for the cause of learning History. I truly think that learning about the past can make the world a better place today and in the future.”  “Most every issue that we are seeing in the news right now - whether or not folks can be required to wear facemasks, Black Lives Matter, the various jurisdictions of local, state, and national governments - has been debated and discussed before. ‘Everything has a history’ is the motto of the American Historical Association.  If we study that history, sometimes we gain new insights. We learn that categories or ideas that we took for granted as universal and immutable may in fact have been historically created - and what was created once can be changed or undone.”

True to her calling as an academician, Dr. Damico has actively pursued historical training through her life’s travels in Texas, Virginia, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington State.  Her Ph.D. dissertation is on water conflict in nineteenth century New Mexico because she was fascinated by the multicultural history of the United States. Dr. Damico explains that “New Mexico contains many Native American people, as well as people of Spanish and Mexican origin whose ancestors were in New Mexico when it was under the control of Spain, and then Mexico, and then the United States.  ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us’ is a common saying there.” Dr. Damico’s scholarly pursuits continue: “I’ve contributed to an encyclopedia of Water Law and, since coming to Pennsylvania, I’ve written a paper on water history here - the three Johnstown floods of 1889, 1936, and 1977.  More recently I’ve been working on a book capturing the history of the drink, the margarita, and also on a workbook for my students about the intersection of myth, memory, and American history.”  

After an academically rigorous journey through her own professional training which culminated in earning her Ph.D. in American History from prestigious Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts in 2008, Dr. “D” as she is known by her students, arrived at Saint Francis University for her interview in 2009.  Of this experience Denise reflects: “A committee led by Tim Whisler and Lori Woods hired me. I considered myself, and still consider myself, incredibly lucky to get this job.  I knew SFU would be a good fit for me because the university is really focused on teaching excellence and on our undergraduate population of students.  That’s the kind of job I wanted. I also knew I preferred a more rural or small town setting to an urban setting; I’ve lived in both and, while cities do offer so many wonderful cultural and other types of resources, I like the quiet setting of the countryside. What I didn’t know then was how much I would grow to enjoy and love the side of the job that is interacting with students outside of the classroom - advising and mentoring, and also serving as advisor for clubs like History Club, our LGBTQ and allies group SEAL, and as Faculty Athletics Mentor for Water Polo.”

Currently Dr. Damico serves as the Department of History and Political Science Chair where she continues to marvel at the talented women and men that she has as co-workers. She delights in doing her History evangelization with a group of colleagues who inspire and impress her with their devotion to both their discipline and their teaching skills. The respect Dr. Damico has for her colleagues is genuinely reciprocated.  Of Dr. Damico, the newly minted full Professor and Chair of the Biology Department at Saint Francis University, Dr. Justin Merry, reflects: “Dr. Damico has been a key leader among our faculty, both in her role as Faculty Senate President as well as Department Chair of History and Political Science. She is one of those people who is able to confront adversity not with knee-jerk reaction, but instead with introspection and considered, constructive responses. She is collaborative, inclusive, kind, and does a great job of keeping her focus on her students. She is a genuine champion for the humanities, and especially history, and has the ability to help students identify and connect with her subject.”  Associate Professor of Management Dr. Eric Ecklund says, “Denise Damico was one of the first friends I made on campus outside of the Shields School of Business. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense as Denise is someone who is known, loved, and respected across all segments of the Saint Francis community. She is a passionate educator who takes great joy in sharing her knowledge with our students and constantly celebrates their successes, mentoring them long after they've left to continue their education and careers. Denise is kind, insightful, and maintains a positive energy of optimism in everything she does. To me, she is the very model of Franciscan higher education principles and we are truly blessed by her presence.”

Denise and students

Students, both those enrolled in her classes and those whose paths cross Dr. D’s in the area of extracurricular activities, consider her simultaneously “intellectually talented” and “personally comfortable.”  Dr. D, ensconced in a southwestern themed shawl, Birkenstocks and an irrepressibly spirited demeanor, is welcoming, kind, accepting and she is interested the lives of her students. Dr. D just has “it,” that certain “je ne sais quoi” that lets you know that you are in the presence of graciousness. Dr. D is comfortable with herself, she emanates an “accepting vibe” that is as disarming and welcoming.  People genuinely enjoy being in her presence.   She epitomizes the type of teacher one would hope to encounter along their college academic journey.  Students also soon learn that behind that warm feeling vibe walks a faculty member whose expectations of students are relentlessly high.  She may be “easy going” but her classes are far from easy.  Students feel pushed and stretched in her classes and they know that high grades will have to be earned.   

In history classes taught by Dr. D students learn the fundamentals of historical critique and research all the while being gently chided to dig deeper using mindfulness and critical analysis.  Once asked how she would like to be addressed, Denise stated, “My students often call me ‘Dr. D’, which I have grown to love, but I would also not object to ‘The Empress of Critical Thinking’ if they were so inclined.”  While stated in her demur, tongue-in-cheek style, those that know her and have taken her classes, can see that she is in truth driven by the dicta of this lofty title. Through the prism of critical thinking students in her classes unearth the historical facts, analyze them with scholarly judiciousness until the facts tell a story (just like her Mema did) and/or reveal a transferable truth that can be applied to contemporary issues.  Hearing Denise speak of her philosophy of teaching and her classes brings to mind the iconic English rock band Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” album cover where a laser focused beam of light travels through a geometric prism and emerges on the other side as a spectrum of diverse light.  Here it's revealed that light, which appears monolithic as a single flavor, is in reality made of infinite flavors, which are all equally true. Applying this symbol to the study of history we can see that what appears at first to be a single factual happening is, in actual fact, an infinite array of perspectives and truths of which, many can be gleaned from continued openness and study.  In this analogy, Denise operates as the prism for the benefit of her students.

Denise and KenTraveling life’s journey with her high school sweetheart, now husband, Ken, Denise finds joy in her students, her work and the Saint Francis University experience.   The “Evangelical Missionary of Historical Study” carries forward both the lessons of her mother/grandmother and the rich Department of History tradition that has been a cornerstone of the general education curriculum at SFU for generations.  As the 21st century continues to unfold, revealing heretofore unprecedented opportunities and challenges, Dr. Denise Damico finds comfort in knowing that history’s lessons can serve as beacons of light for her students to guide them along their life’s journey.  If history is indeed a great teacher, then great teachers of history are needed now more than ever.   For her pedagogical contributions and infectious good-naturedness, Saint Francis University is grateful that Denise’s circuitous life journey has brought her to our campus as a member of the faculty.