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Walter J. Ong, S.J., 1912-2003
ST. LOUIS -- One of the world's most influential thinkers has died. Saint Louis University professor and internationally renowned scholar Walter J. Ong, S.J., died August 12. He was 90.
Published more than 400 times around the world, Ong taught and lectured at many of the world's most prestigious institutions during his illustrious career at SLU.
His work is presented alongside history's most illustrious postmodern theorists, and everyone from psychologists to feminist thinkers continues to appropriate Ong's ideas. They have been used to analyze the oratory skills of Martin Luther King Jr. and to study New York subway graffiti. Entire college courses have been developed around his ideas.
"Today we have lost one of Saint Louis University's, indeed higher education's, greatest treasures," said University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J.
Born Nov. 30,1912, in Kansas City, Mo., Ong was the elder of two sons of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jackson Ong Sr. He graduated from high school at 16 before majoring in Latin at Rockhurst College, where he received a bachelor of arts degree.
He worked in printing and publishing prior entering the Society of Jesus in 1935. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1946. Ong earned a master's degree in English at Saint Louis University. His thesis was supervised by communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, who was quoting his former student by the time he wrote his classic, "The Gutenberg Galaxy." He also earned a licentiate in philosophy and a licentiate in sacred theology from SLU.
After earning his doctorate degree in English at Harvard University in 1955, Ong returned to SLU, where he would teach for the next 36 years. Prior to his appointment as University Professor of Humanities, Ong was the William E. Haren Professor of English and professor of humanities in psychiatry at the SLU School of Medicine.
Centering his life in the Midwest, however, didn't stop Ong from traveling -- and influencing -- the world. His books have been translated into multiple languages, and his scholarship has been cited in more than 2,000 works. The French government decorated him for his scholarly work, and he served as a visiting lecturer at many of the world finest institutions, including Oxford University. From Japan to Nigeria, Ong gave special talks in nations all over the globe.
A prolific writer, Ong authored numerous books, including the widely circulated "Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word," published in 1982 and translated into a dozen languages. As his fame grew, prestigious national organizations sought out his expertise. He served on the 14-member White House Task Force on Education under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 and was a member of the National Council on the Humanities between 1968-74. In 1978, he was elected president of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association of America, the largest scholarly society in the world.
Saint Louis University was among the many institutions to recognize Ong, bestowing him with its highest honor, the Sword of Ignatius Loyola, in 1993. Three years earlier, the University recognized his many accomplishments by establishing the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Chair in the Humanities. Among his many other honors, the Conference on Christianity and Literature gave him their Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
Ong rooted his work in the existence of an always-mysterious God, and when other thinkers felt trapped between what they saw as mutually exclusive alternatives, Ong built a bridge between them. New technologies, he said for example, didn't replace their predecessors, but interacted with them, reinforcing some aspects and reshaping others. He found more commonalities than differences between women and men. His central insights clustered around the transition of one form of communication to another.
Because his scholarship was too broad and too interdisciplinary to fit in any one category or department, SLU named Ong University Professor of Humanities, a position rarely granted. When he taught an English course, many students would say that his courses were not really English, but "Onglish."
Unafraid of the highest technology, Ong believed there were ways to humanize its power. Throughout his storied career, he prodded religious thinkers to attune themselves to a global, interdependent culture, calling for a theology that incorporated modern technology.
Today, scholars are rediscovering Ong's work because of its relevancy to the current digital revolution, and his studies are the focus of two recent books.
In addition to vast scholarly work, Ong's kind spirit and attention to relationships made him a natural at pastoral work. For years he offered daily Mass, listened to thousands of confessions and baptized, blessed and counseled to countless individuals. He taught religion in a detention hall and the inner city.
Ong always disliked the label of a theorist, insisting that he "just tried to say how things are, describe, things." He paid careful attention to every detail in the world around him and not just philosophical matters. He exhibited this ability while fly fishing, spotting lizards in the tall Ozark grasses and caring steadfastly for every houseplant in Jesuit Hall.
Defying categorization, his work brought together innovative ideas in literature, anthropology, philosophy, theology, and psychology and media studies. Perhaps Ong's most lasting contribution was to show how various forms of communication -- from storytelling to cyberspace -- shape our thoughts, relationships and cultures.
Ong is survived by nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews as well as several cousins. He asked that his body be donated to science.
Visitation will be held from 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, in St. Francis Xavier College Church. A memorial mass will be held immediately following at 7:30 p.m. in the church.
Walter J. Ong, S.J. Photo
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