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Our Rich History: Father Anthony Deye was a 50-year Activist/Civil Rights Advocate and History Professor

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Special to NKyTribune

Part 12 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University. 1971-2021”

Fr. Anthony Deye was well known in Northern Kentucky in the final decades of the twentieth century as “a crusader for civil rights, education, children and the elderly for more than fifty years” (“Civil Rights Champion Deye Dies,” Kentucky Post, January 22, 1998, pp. 1k, 5k). The same article quotes Fr. Robert Wehage’s description of Fr. Deye as “a man of great conscience; with many priests referring to him as the conscience of the diocese…. who always spoke with conviction on matters of justice, the poor and education.”

Fr. Deye as Academic Dean and Professor of History. (Photo courtesy of the Thomas More University Archives.)

Fr. Deye participated in the historic Selma to Montgomery March with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As Rev. Wehage summarized of Deye, “even before there was a civil rights movement, he was a strong voice for the elimination of segregation.” (p. 1k). Deye also opposed the Cleveland mob in Newport, Kentucky’s “Sin City” heyday.

Less known was Fr. Deye’s commitment to Villa Madonna College (VMC)/Thomas More College (TMC) over the years. According to the Thomas More Archives, Fr. Deye served on the History faculty as early as 1939-1944 in the “Men’s Division,” which meant that he taught Covington Latin School boys who were taught college classes in a room above a store on Madison Avenue called Thomas More Hall. Sr. Mary Philip Trauth SND, when she was Archivist in 1983, said that this site “was called the ‘hot stove campus,’ because it was heated by an old-fashioned stove, (adding) that this was officially the first use of the name ‘Thomas More College’” (TMU Archives, 05-01-Faculty: Deye, Fr. Anthony H.).

Trauth’s records reveal that Deye served as a full-time faculty member in History at Villa Madonna College from 1945 until 1952. He then pursued a doctorate in History at Notre Dame University, from 1952 until 1955. He returned to VMC as Academic Dean, while teaching part-time from 1956-1963, and completed his PhD from a distance in 1959, with an expertise in African American Studies. With Deye’s return to VMC, Sr. Mary Philip, who came to the VMC History Department during Deye’s Notre Dame years, then had the opportunity to pursue her Ph.D. in History in the late 1950’s at the Catholic University of America.

Sr. Mary Philip Trauth, a professor of History at Villa Madonna College/Thomas More College. (Photo courtesy of the Thomas More University Archives)

After 1963, Fr. Deye taught part-time, intermittently at VMC/TMC and also at the St. Pius X Seminary, while serving the Diocese in various administrative and pastoral posts. Again, not as well known was the nature of Fr. Deye’s academic work. While completing his master’s work in History at the University of Cincinnati (1945) his master’s Thesis was entitled: “Archbishop John Baptist Purcell and the Civil War” and, later, his PhD dissertation at the University of Notre Dame (1959) was: “Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati and the Pre-Civil War Years.”

Among Fr. Deye’s closest friends was Monsignor John Murphy, the 20-year President of VMC/TMC, who called him one of Northern Kentucky’s great leaders on civil and religious issues. He added that Fr. Deye: “always had a great concern for the poor… (and) was concerned about issues of social justice and racial harmony. He was out there pushing when those were not popular issues” (Kentucky Post, January 22, 1998, p. 5K). Other local newspaper articles spoke of Deye’s days as a Pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Newport when he became widely known for protesting adult entertainment businesses in the city and “helping West end residents arrange and deal with the problems of older, inner-city neighborhoods.” He had even served as the “founding member in 1975 of the Newport Citizens Advisory Council.” (“Rev. Deye to step aside as Head of Local Church,” Kentucky Enquirer, January 15, 1982).

Msgr. John Murphy, taken during 1980. (Photo courtesy Kenton County Public Library.)

In closing, it seems appropriate to again seek out Monsignor John Murphy, who in his obituary for Fr. Deye included the following:

• “He had unerring instincts for justice and for where he and his church should be in matters that impact people’s lives.”

• “His mix of conscience and compassion led him to be at once adamant in principle and refreshingly flexible in application.”

• “Did we have any other priests so helpful, so friendly, so supportive of us?”

• In times of discord, “again and again he showed himself to be a good centrist in matters of Church teaching as well as practice… (and) the only subject which he seemed not to be ‘objective’ was the matter of human, and more specifically, racial rights.”

• Yet, with all his many accomplishments, “Tony Deye was a very ordinary man not a scholar but he respected and supported learning. He took his work seriously but not himself. He was the first to note another’s success, the last to claim his own. He never intimidated nor threatened or embarrassed another. His humor was never at the expense of another, and he was always ready to chuckle at his own idiosyncrasies.”

• Finally, Msgr. Murphy concluded that while Tony was “indeed an ordinary man,” he was “one touched by faith. His commitment to the Lord and to the Lord’s People made that ordinary life a very luminous one. He was quite simply the best we have; an ordinary man who, cooperating with God’s grace, was a quite extraordinary priest.”(TMU Archives, Fr. John Murphy Obituary in honor of Fr. Anthony Deye).

To this day, the Thomas More University Department of History remembers Fr. Anthony Deye every May by honoring an outstanding senior with the “Fr. Anthony Deye Award for Civil Engagement.” It is appropriate that we never forget his contributions to Villa Madonna College/Thomas More College as well as to the region and the Diocese of Covington. He was “one of its best.”

A History Department faculty photo from the mid-1970s. Back: Fr. Anthony Deye, Leroy Hill, Carl Trocki, Dan Beattie. Front: Ray Hebert, Sr. M. Evelyn Reinke, Sr. M. Philip Trauth, Fr. Paul Tenhundfeld. (Courtesy of the Thomas More University Archives)

Fr. Deye participating in a memorial march for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is in the center of the photograph behind the driving car. (Photo courtesy Kenton County Public Library)

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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