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May 16, 2013

Obituary: Thomas J. Kane

Thomas J. Kane, associate professor emeritus of communication and former director of the William Pitt Debating Union, died May 5, 2013, in Shadyside Hospital. He was 70.

He studied speech at Pitt, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1963, a master’s degree in 1964 and a PhD in 1968.

Kane, who had a passion for public argument and rhetoric, taught at Pitt for more than three decades, starting as a teaching fellow in 1965.

In 1967 Kane became an instructor and was named director of debate. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1968 and attained the rank of associate professor in 1975. He chaired what was then the Department of Speech 1982-88 and retired from the University in 1999.

As a 1998 recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, Kane was recognized for his graduate and undergraduate teaching skill as well as for his mentoring and service in directing the William Pitt Debating Union.

He coached the U.S.A. Debate Team in the Soviet Union in 1980 and was named National Coach of the Year by Emory University in 1973 and Georgetown University in 1981.

He coached Pitt’s debate team to a national championship in 1981.

Beyond his teaching experience at Pitt, Kane taught at St. Lawrence University and Carlow College and lectured at forensic institutes in a number of schools including King’s College, Georgetown, the University of Kansas, Emporia State University and Baylor.

Colleague John Poulakos said Kane dedicated his life and work to Pitt. “He thought that the University should cultivate lost traditions and impossible loyalties. He himself stood for the culture of high aspirations and the satisfactions of achievement,” Poulakos told the University Times.

“The arenas of his daily life were the classroom, the office and the meeting room. In the classroom he unfolded with meticulous care the values of inquiry and sound judgment. In the office, he subordinated again and again the demands of bureaucracy to the standard of integrity. And in the meeting room, he always sought the main principle in the midst of complex circumstances,” Poulakos stated.

Colleagues credited Kane with sparking the department’s rise in stature. As chair in the 1980s, Kane “oversaw the transformation of an average department into a national powerhouse,” Poulakos said.

Communication faculty member Lester Olson said Kane took academics “incredibly seriously,” citing his efforts to increase academic rigor, to raise admission standards for the major and to hire faculty with strong teaching skills during his time as chair.

Kane advocated for strong teaching, and was committed to ensuring students received a rigorous education. Olson said Kane undertook a comprehensive re-examination of the curriculum and began its redesign, adding that Kane’s influence has remained.

Among the changes, Olson said, was the requirement that communication majors have a substantive research and writing experience and that all upper-level communication courses have research and writing components.

Kane shone in the classroom, said Mickey Bannon, who joined the Pitt communication faculty in 2006.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of public argument in the 20th century,” said Bannon, who was among Kane’s advisees for a time as a Pitt graduate student. “He had the ability in seminar to launch into fascinating stories about history and politics.”

Outside the office, Kane was an avid viewer of C-SPAN, preferring to take in unmediated information straight from the source without pundits’ summarizing and editing, Bannon said. “He believed the public could do it, and he practiced it.”

Poulakos described Kane as an intensely private person who was consumed by the idea of the public good. “He believed that an individual can make a difference and preferred to work behind the scenes.”

Olson said Kane drew boundaries between his personal life and his public life, making it difficult for many to know him well.

Bannon agreed. “You could get to know him, but it was hard to get close to him,” Bannon said.

Nevertheless, Kane was approachable and available and students would seek him out. “He always had time,” Bannon said, adding that when Kane was not in the classroom, he typically could be found in his office. “He was there all day long,” Bannon recalled. “You could talk to him any time.”

Kane had a love of politics and political rhetoric with a particular interest in Russian and Soviet culture and the rhetoric of the Cold War, colleagues said. He was active in local causes and politics and, according to family members, had been a member of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

Kane served the community through volunteer work at Family House and taught English to Russian immigrants at the Jewish Community Center.

He is survived by a brother, Edward Kane; a sister, Susan Heidenthal, and her husband, Jim; a brother-in-law, Bill Elliott, and several nieces and nephews.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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