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Phelan, Thomas (1925-)

Name: Phelan, Thomas (1925-)

Historical Note:

The Reverend Thomas Phelan dedicated more than four decades of his life to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where he served as chaplain, professor, dean, historian, and special adviser to the president. A native of Troy, New York, Phelan began his long association with RPI in 1959 when he was named the resident Catholic chaplain. Rev. Phelan’s legacy to Rensselaer includes building the Chapel + Cultural Center, which opened in 1968. Phelan, who was named dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS) in 1972 and served in that capacity until 1994, is credited with overseeing the renovation of the Russell Sage Laboratory to bring H&SS onto the main campus, and developing a strong faculty focused on bridging the humanities and technology.

Phelan’s contributions to the community outside of Rensselaer were also numerous. He is known as the founding president of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and fostering pride in the local communities that played a major role in the industrial revolution. He also served as chairman of WMHT Educational Telecommunications, and was a leader or member of a host of ecumenical, mental health, historic, and educational groups. He also wrote extensively, on historical theology, American material culture (especially as it reflects our industrial heritage), and higher education. He is perhaps best known for his writings on the American Industrial Revolution, using the Troy area as a model for understanding the implications of industrialization in U.S. history. Phelan’s work through the years earned him numerous honors. He was elected a fellow of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture in 1972. He was awarded the Albany League of Arts Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Arts, the Albert Fox Demers Medal for distinguished service to Rensselaer in 1986, the first Community Service Award from the Hudson-Mohawk Consortium of Colleges and Universities in 1987, and the Academic Citizens Laureate Award from the State University of New York Foundation at Albany in 1988. In 2005 the Institute created the Thomas Phelan Endowed Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences to recognize an outstanding scholar who has contributed significantly to an understanding of the relationship of material culture to the history and development of society.

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