Biographical / Historical
Mary Katherine Bonsteel was born June 8, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio. She attended Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, graduating in 1948 with an A.B. in history. While at Oberlin, she met Louisvillian Eric S. Tachau, and they were married in 1947. After graduation they moved to Louisville and she spent four years as a homemaker and mother. Bored and restless, she returned to school at the University of Louisville to earn a M.A. in history. She became a part-time lecturer in the university's social science department in 1958. In 1961 Tachau was appointed instructor in history and social science. She earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kentucky in 1972. She was promoted to assistant professor of history in 1965, to associate professor in 1973, and to professor in 1977. The Tachaus had three children, Katherine, David, and Susan.
Tachau served as university ombudsman from 1972 to 1974, the first female in the position. She also became the first female chair of the Department of History (1974-1977). She was a member of the university's Faculty Senate from 1971 to 1984, and was elected chair for a one year term in 1976, also being the first woman to hold that position. She was elected chair a second time in 1979. Her position as chair of the Faculty Senate gave her a seat on the university's Board of Trustees. While on the board she served on the Finance Committee, the Budget Advisory Committee, several personnel committees, and the Presidential Search Committee. Tachau's other university service included membership on the Scholarship Committee, the Committee on Non-academic Disciplinary Procedures, the Women's Committee to Advise the OB-GYN Department, the Steering Committee on Women's Studies, the Affirmative Action Committee, and the Committee on Organization, Administration, and Governance for the accreditation review. Tachau received the Distinguished Teaching Professor Award in 1988.
A nationally recognized authority on the United States Constitution, Tachau served as historical advisor to the United States Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Watergate Committee). She also worked on Project '87, a joint venture of the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association, to plan the celebration of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution as a member of the Joint Committee,the Executive Committee, and the Constitutional Exhibit Task Force. She conducted seminars around the United States and in Germany on the Constitution and constitutional issues.
Tachau was very active in professional organizations, holding offices and/or committee appointments in the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the American Society for Legal History, the Southern Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Supreme Court Historical Society, the Filson Club, and the Kentucky Historical Society.
Her publications include innumerable articles and book reviews, including one on the Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky, which won the outstanding article award for the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Her book, Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky 1789-1816, won the Governor's Award of the Kentucky Historical Society in 1979. Over the course of her career, Tachau received grants for research and study from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, the Fellowship for Independent Study and Research, the American Bar Foundation, as well as from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. She also served as editor of The Public Papers of Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. Brown served as governor of Kentucky from 1979 to 1983.
Tachau's civic activities include membership on the board and the executive committee of the Kentucky Chapter, American Civil Liberties Union; the Kentucky Legislative Action for Women; the Federal Judicial Selection Commission of Kentucky, which nominates candidates for federal district judgeships; the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights; and the Kentucky Allied Organizations for Civil Rights. She was also an active member of First Unitarian Church of Louisville.
Mary Katherine Bonsteel Tachau retired from the University of Louisville in July 1990, and died of an aortic aneurysm on October 1, 1990. Surviving her were her husband, Eric, her three children, four grandchildren, her mother, a brother, William Bonsteel, and a sister, Carol Ratliff.