I have known for many years that I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to IU as a means of acknowledging the high-quality education I received while on campus in Bloomington and abroad in Germany. For several years, I have discussed possibilities with the IU Foundation, and finally this year  in conjunction with the Bicentennial Campaign, the time to act arrived. The Department of Germanic Languages was an obvious choice for me. Although my training in computer science at IU has provided me with the tools for a lifelong vocation, the German language skills I learned at IU have served as a basis for some of my most memorable life experiences.
My path to the German language began in the sixties in the small town of Washington, Indiana. By luck of the draw, my junior high school social studies teacher was Mr. Otto Buchhorn, who spoke with a very heavy German accent, although he was born in the United States. I believe he grew up near a town named New Braunfels, not far from Austin, Texas. (I’ve always wondered why Braunfels was New rather than Neu.) That particular area experienced a large influx of German immigrants in the 19th century and the residents continued to speak German for many, many years, which explains the accent. In any case, Mr. Buchhorn also taught German at the high school, and I’d say he used the class in junior high to try to recruit the better students to his German classes. Ultimately, I was able to look past his unwavering support of the University of Texas Longhorns and take his classes. I believe I had three years of German at Washington High School. Looking back, I’d say that my German skills were still quite rudimentary upon graduating. This was probably not unexpected, given the lack of immersion in the language, and I dare say this is probably the experience of 95% of high school language students, regardless of the language studied. Little did I know, however, what a firm foundation Mr. Buchhorn’s classes provided.
Subsequently, upon enrolling at IU in the College of Arts and Sciences, I naturally gravitated to German to fulfill the pesky language requirement. Sadly, I recall that many of my friends regarded the language requirement as something to suffer through in a perfunctory manner on the road to a degree. I still recall admonitions such as “German language classes at IU are very demanding. You don’t need the headache. Look into the cultural studies option to get past the language requirement.” I am so thankful that I ignored this sage advice and went with the language option. In all honesty though, they were right on one count. That is, the classes were demanding. I must have gone through at least three paperback copies of Langenscheidt’s German Dictionary in my freshman year alone. If only http://dict. tu-chemnitz.de/ had existed then. On the other hand, much to my surprise, many aspects of the classes were relatively easy. German prepositions requiring the dative case you say? No problem! Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu! Mr. Buchhorn drilled that into me a few years earlier, so I was often just a fraction of a step ahead. With that, a few professors took note of the kid who seemed to actually enjoy learning a foreign language. In particular, I recall how Ferdinand Piedmont and Christa Beardsley (Ph.D.,’72) encouraged me, challenged me, and helped promote a burgeoning joy of learning the German language.
Not coincidentally then, I regard my gift as a way to honor the dedication of such fine professors, some of the best I had during my undergraduate years. As mentioned earlier, some of my most enduring memories are based on being able to speak German. I fondly recall my first trip to Germany in conjunction with a summer class in Bonn. The last week included a whirlwind trip to Berlin. Imagine, if you can, the impact on a small-town Indiana teenager who was peering over the Berlin Wall into East Berlin observing the differences between a vibrant West and a sullen East. In West Berlin, Mercedes and BMWs ruled the road. In the East, the pinnacle of socialist achievement, a few smoke-belching Trabants could be seen chugging down the road. At irregular intervals along the Wall, one could see black crosses marking the spots where people from the East had died trying to escape to the West. Most had the name and date of death of the deceased. A few simply said “Unbekannt.” Now imagine discussing these things in the language of the local people who experienced them every day of their lives. Thereafter, related pictures on the news and stories in the newspapers were no longer isolated incidents in far-off places. Instead, they became real events involving real people. Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see that Wall finally crack.
Another memory is a visit to Eisenach shortly after the fall of the Wall. The trip there was broken into two parts. The first was on the ICE train from Frankfurt to the still visible border where a change of trains was required. The first train zipped along smoothly at speeds approaching 180 km/hr or more. The second train was still operated on the obsolete tracks and equipment of the East German rail system. Top speed was probably about 40 km/hr. Upon arrival in Eisenach, where train stations and streets and housing stock were being ripped apart in the process of upgrading the eastern infrastructure, I checked into a hotel where the owner was astounded to meet an American who could speak German. I recall translating some documents into English for her so she could provide British visitors with English versions. She seemed to take pride in telling me the history of the hotel and how it had passed from her great-grandmother to grandmother and down to her. She described the changes that crashed down on the country after reunification, including a divorce from a husband who left town after he was discovered to be a Stasi informer. (I’m guessing his popularity took a sudden and precipitous turn for the worse when this was revealed.) I’ve had similar experiences in several other smaller towns in Germany and Austria as the people take a liking to the visiting American who has taken the time to learn their language. Had I been just another English-speaking tourist, I seriously doubt that I would have had such experiences.
So that, in a nutshell, is how I more or less accidentally stumbled onto the German language and managed to stick to it over the years, despite what seems to be a built-in bias for Americans to eschew other languages. I hope that my gift to the university helps future students with an interest in German overcome this bias, learn the language, and revel in the experiences available in the German-speaking world.
As for the future, I hope to be able to visit Germany more often. I’m plotting a visit to Hamburg or maybe Dresden soon, hopefully incorporating a two-week class at the local Goethe Institute. I have a far-fetched goal of attending a class at every Goethe Institute in Germany. I’m guessing that has never been done. So far, I’ve done Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Berlin, and München. That leaves around 10 more to go. Wish me luck and longevity!”