John R. “Jack” Breihan, emeritus professor of history at Loyola University Maryland who wrote several books and numerous articles on Maryland aviation history, Baltimore history and architectural preservation, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease Friday at Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson. The former Roland Park and Ellicott City resident was 74.
“Jack was a very talented teacher and got a lot of students excited about history and put a great deal of emphasis on writing,” said Dr. Matthew Mulcahy, a colleague of Mr. Breihan’s for 22 years at Loyola.
“It just wasn’t about facts, but crafting arguments, and students just loved him,” Dr. Mulcahy said. “Our department was very small and he transformed it.”
Another colleague, Thomas Pegram, who also taught history, said in a university statement announcing Mr. Breihan’s death that “he was involved in so much during Loyola’s transformation into a regional comprehensive university.”
“Since I arrived at Loyola in 1990, Jack was the personification of Loyola’s mission to educate and serve. His energy and initiative were matched by his generosity and compassion. He was the best person I ever knew,” Mr. Pegram said.
John Robert Breihan, the son of Irwin Breihan, a civil engineer, and his wife, Antoinette, a homemaker, was born and raised in St. Louis, where he graduated in 1965 from St. John Vianney High School.
He was a cum laude graduate of Princeton University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969 in history. He received his Ph.D., also in history, in 1978, from the University of Cambridge in England.
Mr. Breihan joined the Loyola faculty in 1977 as an assistant professor of history, a position he held until 1983, when he became an associate in the department and tenured.
“Jack came to Loyola just as it was becoming a powerhouse, and he was one of the first of the national hires,” said his wife of 52 years, Dr. Ann Whitney.
He served twice as history department chair, from 1983 to 1987, and again from 2001 to 2004.
Chris Kaltenbach, a retired Baltimore Sun reporter, was a freshman when Mr. Breihan began teaching at Loyola in 1977.
In a Facebook post, Mr. Kaltenbach wrote that Mr. Breihan was “one of the best teachers I ever had, a man who had an unrelenting passion for life and made learning seem like the best thing ever. It’s been said that a good teacher makes his subject come alive. Jack Breihan not only made history come alive, but he made it seem fun. And cool. I mean, with Jack as your guide, who wouldn’t want to learn this stuff?”
Mr. Breihan had high expectations for his students.
“Not that Jack’s courses were cakewalks. Far from it. He expected you to work hard, to ask questions about things you didn’t understand, to wrestle with the material until you mastered it,” Mr. Kaltenbach wrote.
During his tenure at Loyola, Mr. Breihan researched and taught military history, history through film, and historic preservation. He also played an influential role in launching the College Honors and writing-across-the-curriculum programs, while developing a deep interest in the World War II years and Maryland aviation.
At his death, Mr. Breihan was writing a book about World War II suburban development, his wife said.
“Jack taught a class on Baltimore history and architecture that was very popular,” said Dr. Mulcahy, who was history department chair from 2007 to 2014.
“When he taught his Baltimore History and Architecture class, one of the assignments was that students had to write a history of a neighborhood, and they got extra credit if they got it posted to Wikipedia,” Dr. Mulcahy said in the Loyola statement.
Mr. Breihan also wrote “Between Munich and Pearl Harbor: The Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company Gears Up for War, 1938-1941,” an article published by the Maryland Historical Magazine in 1993.
In 1939 as France and Germany lurched toward war, the French government awarded the Martin Co. a rush contract for planes, and almost overnight, Mr. Breihan explained in a 2008 interview with The Sun, Martin’s employment went from 3,000 to 10,000, and by war’s end topped out at 54,000.
To accommodate war workers, the company built its first housing, named Stansburg Manor on Wilson Point Road, which was a garden-apartment complex.
With the coming of World War II, the Martin Co. built Aero Acres in Middle River in 1941 near its plant to house white war workers, and similarly in the early 1940s, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City constructed a planned community, Cherry Hill, the South Baltimore neighborhood that was ringed by parks and cul-de-sacs, for African Americans.
Intrigued by its history, Mr. Breihan and 17 of his students began documenting Cherry Hill’s background in 2000 when they interviewed original residents. The collaboration between teacher and students resulted in a 30-page document titled “Cherry Hill: A Community History.”
“This is an admirable community,” he told The Sun in a 2003 interview. “The real building of the community is done by the people who live in it. Each Cherry Hill club, church congregation, or recreation team was begun by Cherry Hill’s African American residents.”
“The neighborhood has been quite a powerhouse for producing powerful Black leaders,’” he explained in the newspaper article.
Interested in historic preservation and aviation, Mr. Breihan had served on the boards of Baltimore Heritage and the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum.
“You couldn’t have found a nicer guy than Jack Breihan,” said Stan Piet, curator of the Martin aviation museum. “He was brilliant, well-respected and so smart and sophisticated when it came to interacting with people.”
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Despite struggling with Parkinson’s for two decades, Mr. Breihan managed to fill seven file cabinets with interviews which he donated to the museum. “It’s quite a bit of stuff and obviously it will take time to get through it all. His wife, Ann, would bring him down here and he’d spend hours organizing it,” Mr. Piet said.
Mr. Breihan retired in 2017.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday at Loyola’s Alumni Memorial Chapel at 4501 N. Charles St.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Breihan is survived by two sons, Thomas Breihan of Charlottesville, Virginia, and James W. Breihan of Maplewood, Missouri; a daughter, Margaret W. Breihan of San Francisco; his mother, Antoinette Breihan of St. Louis; a brother, Stephen Breihan of St. Louis; a sister, Patricia Wallace of Raleigh, North Carolina; and five grandchildren.