University of New Orleans English professor Robert Shenk, who spent more than three decades teaching technical writing, editing and various literature courses—including his perennially popular course on John Milton—died Jan. 30. He was 77.
Shenk taught in the Department of English and Foreign Languages for 34 years until his retirement in 2019.
“He was dedicated to his students and the standards and administration of our department,” said Nancy Easterlin, UNO professor of English and women’s and gender studies. “He had the foresight to recognize the importance of internships and worked diligently for a program whose importance is now only being recognized.”
Shenk’s diligence resulted in great workforce experiences for UNO students, Easterlin said.
A retired captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Shenk arrived at UNO following a military career that included academic positions at the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy and active duty service during the Vietnam War.
“I served as communications officer on a destroyer that chased carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin and bombarded North Vietnamese shore batteries,” Shenk told the Driftwood during an interview in 2000. “I was on river patrol boats for a year in the smaller rivers and canals of Vietnam.”
Shenk distinguished himself as an editor, literary critic and, most recently, a historian, following the publication of the well-received book “Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923” and “The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries “(UNO Press). It is a collection of American naval war diaries found in the National Archives regarding the atrocities perpetrated upon the Asia Minor Greek minority by the ruling Nationalist Turks on Turkey’s northern coast from 1921-1922.
M.O. Walsh, director of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop, recalls working with Shenk as the newly minted director of the MFA program. Shenk was the director of the English master’s degree program and the two had to work together to build course schedules and advise students.
“Bob was very old school in his approach, a military veteran, a scholar, and I was intimidated by him, to be honest. He was also very tall,” Walsh said. “Anyway, he disliked email, did everything on paper on little sticky notes in his difficult-to-read handwriting. Since I didn’t know what I was doing yet, I made numerous mistakes in our early days together, which I could tell frustrated him.”
One time Walsh mistakenly over-enrolled a course because he had missed one of Shenk’s sticky notes. Knowing he had messed up, Walsh said he braced himself for a reprimand.
“He came to my office,” Walsh said. “Instead of belaboring this point, though, Bob gave me a CD as a present. I looked at the cover and it was picture of him.”
It turned out that Shenk was also a classically trained pianist, and had recorded an album of Christmas carols on the piano, Walsh said. It was called “A Bob Shenk Christmas.”
“It was the most unexpected thing,” Walsh said. “It was a great reminder that people are so much larger and more complicated than the versions we see of them at work. I considered Bob a friend from that moment forward. He will be missed.”
A funeral mass will be held at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Covington, LA at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Visitation will start at noon in the church. For those unable to attend, the service will be broadcast online.