Jim McShane would refuse to turn his shirt around even after learning it was on backward. He’d carry a dictionary in his car to use as fodder in any arguments about language that might arise. And he always had a pun on the tip of his tongue.
He didn’t care what others thought of him. He was funny, annoying and irreplaceable.
“We can’t help but chuckle even though we’re sad,” said his wife of 50 years, Carol. “He was just quite a personality.”
The 74-year-old retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln English professor died July 5 of complications from heart surgery. A tireless advocate for those at odds with powerful institutions, McShane will be remembered as the “university’s conscience,” said friend and retired UNL economics professor Jerry Petr.
McShane served for many years as chairman of the university’s Academic Rights and Responsibilities Committee, which mediates disputes between faculty and the administration related to academic freedom, tenure and professional conduct. He would often go beyond the call of duty to help embattled faculty members facing grievances, Petr said.
He was also a two-term president of the UNL Faculty Senate, which awarded him its James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award.
“Jim was Mr. Rights and Responsibilities on campus,” Petr said.
Beyond that, he was a loving husband, father of seven children and teacher to countless students.
McShane put teaching, not publishing, ahead of everything else, said UNL graduate Andy Nelson. He took language seriously and stirred a love of words in others, he said.
“His wit was so large and so sharp, he sounded like he walked out of the pages of ‘Ulysses,’” said Nelson, an editor for Vance Publishing of Overland Park, Kan.
His daughter, Anne McShane of St. Louis Park, Minn., said he was prone to launch into lectures that referenced the Bible and Shakespeare when posed simple questions by his children, a habit she didn’t learn to appreciate until later in life.
He was an effective mediator because he was able to make compromises work for everyone involved, she said. And he was beloved by his students, she said.
“I think he was a very easy grader," she said. "He could see the good in lots of things.”
Always willing to go out on a limb for someone in need, Jim McShane found himself in opposition to the Lincoln Diocese after joining Call to Action, an organization made up of Catholics seeking greater openness and inclusiveness in the Roman Catholic Church.
After the group publicly protested the church’s conservative stance on gay rights, female priests and married priests, former Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz excommunicated the group's local Catholic members, including McShane.
Carol McShane said her husband’s excommunication troubled him greatly. Despite leading an effort to get the decree overturned, Jim McShane died still excommunicated from the church he loved, she said.
“He felt the excommunication as deeply as anyone if not more so,” said Rachel Pokora, former president of Nebraska Call to Action. “Everything he did he did out of love for the church.”
Pokora wrote about her organization’s fight with the Lincoln Diocese in a forthcoming book, “Crisis of Catholic Authority: Faith and Power in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.”
“I’m saddened that he died before he could read it,” she said. “He was the hero of the book.”