John Pettegrew, professor and history department chair, died Tuesday, May 29 after complications of cancer. He taught history courses at Lehigh and was involved with helping the Bethlehem Community through the South Side Initiative. (Courtesy of Lehigh University Film Studies)

John Pettegrew, professor and history department chair, dies at 58


John Pettegrew, professor and chair of the history department, died at his home on May 29. The cause of death was complications from stage IV prostate cancer. He was 58.

Pettegrew holds a doctorate on post-Civil War U.S. intellectual and cultural history from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he received in 1994, and taught for over two decades, wrote multiple books and held discussions with the Bethlehem community.

He was passionate about his students understanding how history can be applied to their own lives in small and large ways.

He taught modern U.S. history at Lehigh with interests particularly in the late 19th and 20th century. His curriculum included topics such as Darwinism, race, feminism and war. He also directed the American Studies Program, an interdisciplinary program offered at Lehigh. His courses involved discussions and interacting with primary and secondary works while asking complex questions so that students learn to think critically.

While he taught at Lehigh, he actively played a role in the Bethlehem community through his work as co-founder and director of South Side Initiative and consultant for various productions for Touchstone Theater.

Created in 2007, The South Side Initiative works on the development of Bethlehem with Lehigh students and faculty working alongside Bethlehem residents. Pettegrew wanted there to be community engagement at Lehigh and get residents involved by sharing their opinions with what is being done in their own community.

He also helped beautify the community by planting Southside Community Gardens and the Lehigh Community Garden.

In 2007, he wrote “Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920” about whether men are naturally violent by analyzing primary sources. His other work include being co-editor of the three-volume work “Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism” and author and editor of “A Pragmatist’s Progress: Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History.”

In 2015, he published his book “Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq,” which looks at the visual culture of the 21st century and the use of technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan War. He interviewed military veterans in Bethlehem for information and their stories during Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The video project is compiled on The Veterans Empathy project website. The videos can be used in public high school social studies courses. His commentary and research for the book also included first-person shooter video games and YouTube videos.

Pettegrew’s interest in documentaries started before The Veterans Empathy project. In 2011, he helped create Lehigh’s Center for Documentary Film and Digital Media. He enjoyed including documentaries or videos in his teaching and created the Graduate Certificate Program in Documentary Film at Lehigh.

Pettegrew is survived by his wife, professor Tamara Myers; his children, Nicholas Pettegrew, ‘21, and Helen Keetley; his parents, Mary and Fred Pettegrew; and his siblings, James Pettegrew and Jane Pettegrew Stewart.

A memorial service on campus is being planned for the fall.


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  1. Jonathan Fishner on

    Professor Pettegrew was a great teacher and a really good guy. His History of the American Documentary class was one of the most interesting I took at Lehigh and I enjoyed having him as a thesis advisor. I’m terribly sorry to hear of his passing.

  2. Embarrassed to Be Associated on

    I am so sorry to hear that, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family. My father died young of aggressive prostate cancer too. The assumption seems to be that prostate cancer is the disease that your grandfather would die with but not from, however, that isn’t always the case. RIP Professor Pettegrew.

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