History with Class


History professor Iris Engstrand is retiring at the end of the academic year, her 48th at Alcalá Park.

“I don’t think anyone takes a job and thinks, ‘this is where I’ll be for the next five decades,’ but it worked out that way,” Engstrand says. “I’ve been privileged to see USD develop from the tiny colleges for women and men into a truly great university. It’s been such a blessing.”

Author of more than 20 books, Engstrand is an accomplished scholar of Latin American, Mexican and Spanish history and was recently awarded the Order of Isabel la Católica by the King of Spain for outstanding contributions to the history of Spain in the Americas.

Soon after joining the San Diego College for Men faculty in 1968, history department chair Ray Brandes asked Engstrand to organize a conference on San Diego history. That conference became the catalyst for a new specialty. Almost 50 years later, Engstand is perhaps the leading authority on the region’s history. The new edition of her book, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone, was published in 2016.

If it is difficult to imagine USD without Engstrand, maybe it’s because there has never been a USD without her. Engstrand joined the College for Men faculty four years before it merged with the College for Women and the School of Law to create the University of San Diego. She was part of the committee that selected Author E. Hughes to be president of the new institution.

“I was one of the very few women teaching at the College for Men,” Engstrand remembers. “I got a lot of support from Sister Helen Lorch and some of the other nuns; they even helped look after my daughter so I could teach. It’s easy to get sentimental now, but there were a lot of contentious issues that needed to be worked through. But all you have to do is look around to see it’s worked out pretty well.”

Engstrand’s life in retirement will have a familiar air.

In addition to continuing her work as editor of The Journal of San Diego History, Engstrand is a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Maritime Museum, a volunteer with the San Diego Natural History Museum and curator of centennial exhibits at Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. She’s also consulting for MGM on a movie about the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

And there is one other project keeping her busy.  She’s working with Derrick Cartwright, USD’s director of university galleries, to team-teach a course on art and architecture.

“I love teaching,” she says. “I love the research and writing and everything that’s part of being a professor, but I’ve always loved teaching the most.” — Timothy McKernan

2 Responses
  1. Jo Smith Chabot Reply

    Congratulations! Although what you will doing now that you’re retired certainly doesn’t equal what I think of as retirement
    Just want you to know that I have always loved history and you were certainly the main contributor to that love. Thank you.
    One of my favorite memories is when you hinted to our class that your Elementary school teacher friends always got Valentines from their students. And, of course, that year you scored big because we all adored you.❤
    Happy Retirement!!!!

  2. Deanna Rose Von Bargen RSCJ Reply

    Loved watching and listening to this video, since I was a student at SDCW pre-merger, even pre-Iris, and subsequently became an RSCJ … I know all the buildings Iris talks about, and enjoyed the story of how the RSCJ had more money at the Women’s College than the bishop with the Men’s College !!

    Recently met a priest retired from the Diocese of San Diego, who was in the seminary when his building was (or became) De Sales…. Both of us saw the statue of Mary being installed on top of the blue Immaculata church dome in 1958 or 59. He lamented the fact that the seminarians had no sports program at the time.

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