Professor lives and teaches history, looks to his students’ futures


Photo by: Daniel O’Loughlin

Prisoners-of-war historical specialist, Vietnam War veteran and self-described “homesick angel,” history professor Robert C. Doyle, who holds a doctorate in American culture studies, is himself history-worthy, and to his students, he’s nothing short of legendary.

Though Doyle is often found chatting and smoking on the bench behind Egan, his formal office is found on ground floor, its walls, door and desk covered in historical memorabilia from his life. An Air Force blood chit, posters of the movies for which Doyle was historical consultant and postcards from students are just a few pieces of his history.

As Doyle himself understated, “I’ve done some stuff.”

As a young man, Doyle attended Pennsylvania State University, received his commission as an ensign in the Navy and was deployed to Vietnam on the USS Steinaker. “To be a part of that group was one of the most special things in my life,” he remarked.

Though the Steinaker was memorable, it was his second deployment that truly shaped the course of his life. Doyle became the Naval Intelligence Liaison Officer (NILO) for the Ben Tre province: “My job was to report to the admiral directly everything that was going on in our province. … We had naval assets there … SEALs, for example. … So, I became the Intelligence Officer for the SEAL team.”

Doyle struggled to describe why this job was so important to him personally. “I liked being NILO Ben Tre so much, I keep trying to recreate it.” He compared it to first love, saying, “You know, you fall in love with something — it’s like having a first girlfriend; it’s really special. … There was something about being NILO Ben Tre that was so special to me.”

Proudly, Doyle recounted his old nickname. When “the SEALs came down and moved into … the province, I became Captain NILO, and they became the NILO Rangers.” He quipped, “Captain NILO and his NILO Rangers: that’s … good enough for a t-shirt, don’t you (think)?”

This period also had a particular impact on his career. In the Ben Tre province were two prisoners of war, and as part of Doyle’s job, “we tried so hard to develop intel to get these guys out.” He described the experience as “one of the things that we did over there that … got right down to your skin.” The incident helped inspire Doyle’s specialization in the history of prisoners of war.

Another event that motivated Doyle to specialize in POW history came when he heard an academic speaker claim that Mary Rowlandson’s account was the last “true captivity narrative.” After that, Doyle knew, “I was going to prove this lady wrong.” And, with the publication of his first book, he did just that.

Despite all of the “stuff” he has done, Doyle is most enthusiastic about his students: “The kids are always special. … We never had children, so you guys are my kids.”

And Doyle is one proud father. He eagerly told stories about his former students, commenting, “You have any idea what that does to me? … When you see the cycle — working?” His voice emphatic and earnest: “Wow. Wow.”

“I’ve always asked myself … where do we get these kids?” Chuckling, he gave credit where due, “The good Lord is good to us. … In the nineteen years I’ve been (at) this place, I’ve run across … some of the most remarkable young people.”

Though being a professor is not easy, Doyle is nothing but grateful. “The kids give me life. … That’s why I didn’t retire 10 years ago,” he said. “You have no idea what they give you — it’s precious … but they give more to me than I give to them.”

Junior Felicity Moran was enthusiastic to reciprocate the sentiment, saying about Doyle, “You do more good for the students than you realize.”

Indeed, Doyle’s “kids” are as eager to talk about Doyle as he is of them, and they often swap stories about his life and quote his “Doyle-isms.”

“He is sweet and attentive to your needs as a student,” Moran enthused. “He really, really cares about us doing well, and he tries to help us find our way. … He’s very genuine.”

Students also agree that Doyle’s mentoring has been invaluable. Junior Bryan Calligan accredited Doyle with “help(ing) me to foster my interest in military history” and making him “certain that that is where I would like to continue my studies.”

But the memories are what they love most, and Calligan and Moran reminisced about conversations with Doyle. Moran said that her favorite memories are “just stopping by his office and chatting with him for anywhere between five minutes and two hours. … You’re going to get some awesome story about something, and it’s just a really fun time, even if you’re also getting secondhand smoke in the process,” she added jokingly.

Calligan concurred: “I’ve always enjoyed going to talk to Dr. Doyle … in his ‘outdoor office’ — in other words, the bench behind Egan — where we … talk about his war stories or just class in general.”

Soldier, professor, mentor and friend: many universities have wonderful history professors, but Franciscan University is lucky to boast of one who has not only lived history but helps his students write their own.