John Francis Bannon, longtime chairman of the History Department at Saint Louis University and an expert on the Spanish borderlands of North America, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1905, the son of William Joseph and Clara Shortle Bannon. His brother James Bannon grew up to become an actor playing the role of Western hero Red Ryder on television.
Jack Bannon was brought up in Kansas City, Missouri, and attended Rockhurst High School, graduating in 1922. Two years later he entered the Society of Jesus at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri. From 1926 to 1929 he studied at Maison Saint Louis on Jersey, the Channel Islands, United Kingdom, the philosophate of the Paris Province of the Society. He took theology at St. Mary's College in Kansas and was ordained in June 1935. Meanwhile, he had earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Saint Louis University in 1928 and his master's degree in philosophy and history the next year. His thesis was entitled "A Philosophy of Medieval Art."
As a scholastic he taught history, French, and Spanish at St. Mary's College High School in St. Mary's, Kansas from 1929 to 1930, and French and Spanish at the college itself from 1930 until it closed the following year. He moved on to Regis College in Denver, Colorado, teaching the same languages during 1931 and 1932. In the summer of 1936 he taught history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and between 1937 and 1939 he studied history and anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. His mentor was the renowned scholar of the Spanish borderlands Herbert E. Bolton, who earlier in the decade had besought Jesuit provincials in the United States to recommend graduate students for work in the treasure trove of materials documenting Jesuit missionary activities in colonial Mexico. Bannon rose to the challenge and obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on Jesuit missionary efforts in Sonora after Kino.
After teaching history for the summer at the University of San Francisco, Bannon began his 34 year association with the History Department of Saint Louis University in the fall of 1939. In 1943 he was appointed chairman of the department, a position he held for 28 years. He retired in 1973 as professor emeritus. During his career he often accepted visiting professorships elsewhere, preferring to go west where he could more easily pursue his research. He taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of New Mexico, and Utah State University, among others. After retirement, although he spent one semester at Marquette University in 1974 and another at the University of Colorado, he dedicated himself to writing. He also served as archivist for Saint Louis University. He went on record as having "absolutely no interest in pastoral work."
Bannon was the author of twelve books, including a biography of Bolton and several classroom texts, and was a recognized authority on the early trans-Mississippi West and colonial Latin America. Like Bolton, he regarded the histories of North and South America as inseparable parts of the story of the hemisphere as a whole. He co-founded the Western Historical Association and served as its president from 1965 to 1966. He was on the board of editors of the Hispanic-American Historical Review and on the executive council of the American Catholic Historical Association. He served as program chairman of the Mississippi Valley Historical Society four times and hosted the St. Louis meeting in 1955. That same year he was chairman of the Conference on Latin-American History of the American Historical Association. He edited the Historical Bulletin between 1943 and 1950 and was advisory editor for Manuscripta from 1957, when it appeared as a new publication of Pius XII Memorial Library at Saint Louis University, until his death.
In the 1950s Bannon broadcast more than 100 television programs about the American West and Latin America on KETC-TV, Channel 9 as well as on the national educational television network (ETV). In 1958 and 1959 he hosted a popular 30-part lecture series about the first 100 years of St. Louis history on KMOX-TV, Channel 4. Several of his shows carried college credit from Saint Louis University. Interestingly enough, most of Bannon's fan mail came from a certain Eastern city, leading the Jesuit to quip, "They love me in Boston.".
Bannon received the Alumni Merit Award in 1978, and in 1984 Genevieve "Genie" B. Janes established a fund in the History Department that was developed into the John F. Bannon, S. J. Endowed Chair of History. In 1982, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, a number of Bannon's former students presented a session in his honor that gave rise to the festschrift entitled "From the Mississippi to the Pacific: Essays in Honor of John Francis Bannon."
Father Bannon was renowned for his crusty, occasionally caustic character. In his opinion, "nobody (except Jack, of course) had any guts." At the same time he was a warm, generous friend to many, especially the thousands of students whom he could still greet by name years later. "He was a stickler for regulations and could be acerbic, but he was also genial and considerate," ever unwilling to see graduate students drop out of the program. Bannon was a colorful lecturer famous for his use of the prototypical couple "Minnie and Jake" to represent the average people of all epochs. He reached thousands of undergraduates as the instructor of the required course in Western civilization, and was to be found in his office "from early morning to mid-evening, with a few hours respite for a late lunch and a nap." Bannon was a self-described 'professor-priest' whose highest priorities were teaching and scholarship," but for many years he also celebrated early Mass on campus. University President Paul C. Reinert, S. J. delivered perhaps the ultimate paean to Jack Bannon when he noted: "During the 25 years I was President, while we could point to a large number of excellent teachers and scholars, both Jesuit and lay, it was my experience that no others brought the University into such direct contact and favorable esteem on the part of the civic and especially the non-Catholic segments of our community as did Father Jack Bannon. In the eyes of the broader St. Louis community, he became a kind of prototype of what the University stood for. " His colleagues at Manuscripta stated more simply, "His work and publications made him internationally known, but his influence over his students made him one of the best known and loved professors Saint Louis University ever had."
Father Bannon died on June 5, 1986 after a long battle with emphysema. James Hitchcock probes the tensions in Bannon's life as a priest and in his career as a scholar when he writes: "Especially during the earlier part of his career, he was very conscious of being a Catholic and a priest working amidst secular academicians. On the one hand he sought to be accepted as a professional, willing to be called simply'Jack' and omitting 'S. J.' from his publications lest it prevent his getting a fair hearing, but on the other hand he was strongly committed to the Church and to the Society of Jesus. In his later years he was disturbed by what seemed to him the declining influence of the Society in the educational institutions which bear its name." Bannon's bitterness on this score permeates his two volumes of memoirs, which form a restricted part of this collection. But he might have been cheered by the fact that his greatest legacy is an extensive network of grateful former students teaching in both Catholic and secular universities, colleges, and high schools all over the country.