Dr. John Oppelt, former professor, dean, provost and acting president, dies at 85

January 10, 2023

In Loving Memory of Dr. John Oppelt

Dr. John Oppelt, who served as a professor, dean, provost and acting president in his 23 years at Bellarmine University, died on Dec. 20, 2022. He was 85.

“John was a scholar and a gentleman. He was one of the nicest people I’ve known,” said Dr. Mike Mattei, professor of Information Systems, who knew Dr. Oppelt for 15 years and reported to him for five.  “He was firmly entrenched in the Bellarmine tradition and an avid supporter of the Bellarmine basketball teams.”

Bellarmine Athletics honored Dr. Oppelt, who was a longtime season ticket holder, at the men’s basketball game on Dec. 29 in Freedom Hall.

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Oppelt held degrees in mathematics from Loyola College and the University of Notre Dame. His first job was assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. After serving as Sesqui-Centennial Scholar of UVA at the University of Washington in Seattle for a year, he returned to George Mason, which at the time was a part of UVA, where he became department chair of mathematics. When George Mason became an independent university, he was dean of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Oppelt came to Bellarmine in 1981 and served as academic vice president under Bellarmine’s second president, Dr. Eugene Petrik, for three years. It was a time of great change for the university. The two men did not always agree on things like faculty development and curriculum, but they always maintained a mutual respect, and Dr. Oppelt felt that the university always maintained its stated mission.

“Bellarmine has always stood for something,” he said in High Upon a Hill, a history of Bellarmine written by Wade Hall. “It has never gotten wishy-washy.”

At various times, Dr. Oppelt served as chair of Bellarmine’s Mathematics Department, dean of Arts and Sciences and provost, a role in which he was responsible for bringing Physical Therapy, Respiratory Care, Clinical Laboratory Science and Cytotechnology to Bellarmine from a public institution. In 1998, he was again named vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of Bellarmine College following a national search.

When Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, Bellarmine’s third president, took a sabbatical in the spring of 1999, Dr. Oppelt was appointed acting president of the university.

Dr. Oppelt’s teaching was recognized with Bellarmine’s Wyatt Faculty Award and the Teacher of the Year award from the Math Association of America. He retired from Bellarmine in May 2003. In 2004, he received the Msgr. Alfred Horrigan Distinguished Service Award for his significant contributions to the university, and in 2012, he was presented with the Msgr. Alfred Horrigan Medal at commencement.

When Dr. Oppelt first came to Bellarmine, he said he wanted to get back to a private, independent college because unlike public schools, “a private school such as Bellarmine can have a soul, a permanent identity that doesn’t have to change with politics or fads.” 

He also believed strongly in the advantages of the university’s liberal arts curriculum. “At Bellarmine, we try to educate the whole person, with all the professions addressing the whole person, whether accounting or nursing or teaching,” he once said. “A good business course is a good liberal arts course.”

Dr. Oppelt’s survivors include his wife, Mary; daughter Jean Marie (Sam Tucker) and son Michael Oppelt; nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; and sister Delores Peterson. 


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