Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

Hearing the news this week of the death of my friend, Wolfgang Natter, I walked over to the place we first met – the co-educational fraternity Alpha Delta Phi here on the campus of Wesleyan University. We spent countless hours at the fraternity in the mid 1970s discussing ideas, washing dishes, listening to music, finding ourselves. Together, we projected repeated screenings of Les Enfants du Paradis, debated Hegel and Marx, protested against a world that we also earnestly sought to understand. Entering Alpha Delt, thinking of Wolfgang, I gravitated to the kitchen in which we had been co-workers, sometimes co-conspirators, always friends. The place was bustling with undergrads dealing with the end of the 2018 semester, but I could still feel the force of memories forty years old.

Wolfgang had widely varied interests, and he pursued them with passion. After Wesleyan, he continued his studies at the broadly interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University. He had an abiding interest in the World War I period, a time when, I recall him saying, everything changed. When we were young, he spoke of making a movie about the period, perhaps writing a play. Later, Wolfgang turned his dissertation on the literature of the Great War into a book, Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. His scholarship managed to be both meticulous and broad-minded – a rarity.

Mostly, I remember Wolfgang’s gentleness, his way of welcoming people into conversations about movies, about German literature or drama, about politics. His mind was sharp, but what stood out was his generosity, his curiosity, his openness. When I lectured at his invitation at the University of Kentucky decades after we graduated from Wesleyan, I learned that Wolfgang had become a leader in a humanistic approach to critical geography and that his intellectual interests had grown to include sophisticated spatial analyses of all sorts of subjects that I had never realized even had a spatial dimension. We spoke for hours about his new lines of inquiry. He had left nothing behind, but his intellectual world was growing fast. I was so impressed by his students, whom he treated as colleagues, and his colleagues, whom he treated as friends. What a mentor he was! I could see the constellation of his qualities – the fierce intelligence, the wide-ranging curiosity, the humor and intellectual curiosity – emerging in his students.

For many years, our paths rarely crossed, but recently we both found ourselves back at Wesleyan. I was now president here, and Wolfgang had come to help us as a consultant before becoming Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Joseph, son of Wolfgang and his former wife Liz, was then a student at Wesleyan, and the father had the joy of seeing alma mater through the eyes of his thoughtful and engaged son. Wolfgang also fell in love again at Wesleyan, finding a life-partner in Sarah Kendall, a fellow Alpha Delt and Wes alumna.

Wolfgang was the rare academic administrator who approached the work with open-minded inquiry, with the curiosity and care characteristic of the best research in the humanities. A few weeks before he died, he wrote me with a question about how to help constituents of a school get past points of conflict and return to their deeper mutual convergence. He was so good at finding (sometimes building) convergence while respecting differences. He believed in the spirit of the academic enterprise and exemplified what is best about it. I miss him already.

9 thoughts on “Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

  1. Thank you for this, Michael. Wolfgang will be missed by many. I am thinking now about his delight in films from the glory days of American musicals. I remember him vamping “Stairway to Paradise” from An American in Paris on the central stairs of Alpha Delt: “I’ll beeld a stairway to paradise, weeth a new step every day…!”

  2. Thank you! for this wonderfully personal portrait of a gentle-man & generous scholar. We knew Wolfgang for two (too brief) years at Chestnut Hill College. I recall a day in his office when he pulled down his books on Frederic Jameson — ever the old Marxist and engaged conversationalist. I was deeply saddened to hear of his death — it is far too soon.
    I wrote to him at Christmas time attaching a NYT book review on Martin Luther — he wrote back on Christmas Day. (Who else would do that?? )
    Please give our best to Joseph, class of 2017. I hope he gets the Legend Lime Mustang!!
    Barbara Lonnquist (Chair of English, CHC)

  3. I will miss his silly sense of humor, his embrace of the world and his fierce determination.

  4. Michael, Thank you for your thoughtful insights about Wolfgang. He was someone I considered a friend and mentor and I am saddened that he is no longer with us.
    Meredith

  5. Thank you President Roth. This was sent to the international critical geography forum listserv on Monday:

    Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

    It is with deep sadness that we note the unexpected passing yesterday of Wolfgang Natter. Most recently he held the position of Vice President for Academic Affairs at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Most critical geographers know Wolfgang from his nearly twenty-year career at the University of Kentucky, where he came to closely affiliate with the Department of Geography, and where his presence among faculty and students was legendary.

    Trained as a Germanist at John Hopkins University, Wolfgang’s dissertation-based book, Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany, was published by Yale. By the time it appeared Wolfgang had already moved on to establish two parallel tracks that would define his later academic life. The first was administrative. In 1990 he co-founded and co-directed UK’s Committee on Social Theory, a learning community that continues to thrive today. Social Theory at Kentucky has been a model of research, teaching and community outreach. Wolfgang’s vision, acumen, enthusiasm, and collectivizing spirit was essential in uniting dozens of scholars and scores of graduate students in the pursuit of questions and objects of analysis that lay at the intersection of traditional disciplines and post-disciplinary social, cultural, and political theory. A contract with Guilford Press would result in a series of co-edited volumes: Postmodern Contentions: Epochs, Politics, Space; Objectivity and its Other; and The Social and Political Body. And as difficult as it is to imagine translational social theory, Wolfgang was keen to ensure that theory made a difference. Through his efforts the Committee’s good work was shared in civil society organizations around central Kentucky, Appalachia, and beyond.

    The second defining track of his career was in geography, his adopted field. He brought to the discipline a facility for theory that was deeply needed during some of the more slippery moments of the postmodern turn. He was fluent in 20th century literary theory, in German Romanticism, in the Frankfurt School, and in French poststructuralism. His wide-ranging contributions to geography can be found in articles and book chapters on cinematic geographies, geopolitics, radical democracy, the history of geographic thought, geography and literary theory, political ecology, identity theory, the body, and territory and scale.

    Wolfgang had an expansive personality and an excellent memory. It was not for nothing that so many young scholars would gravitate to his seminars – they sought him out for his kind and generous guidance as well as for his encyclopedic repertoire. He had an uncanny ability to position the latest fads within a long-arc lens. As befits a talented theorist, he was the closest of readers. We once had the pleasure of listening to him brilliantly unpack – over the course of a three-hour graduate seminar – a single paragraph from Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment.

    We will greatly miss our friend and colleague, Wolfgang Natter.

    John Paul Jones III
    University of Arizona

    Theodore A. Schatzki University of Kentucky

  6. Wolfgang and Sarah became friends of my wife and me during my stint as Interim VP of HR at St. Scholastica. We, like all who knew him at CSS, are devastated by his passing.
    He epitomized the Benedictine values of hospitality and respect and we will miss his smile and laugh terribly…

  7. Dr. Natter was the Founding Director of my doctoral program at Virginia Tech called ASPECT. He was my professor for 2 semesters in 2009 and later member of my dissertation committee. He was extremely kind and caring human being and an engaging interdisciplinary thinker. I was deeply upset with the news last week, as were my former classmates. A professor at Virginia Tech who was also Wolfgang’s friend wrote this In Memoriam I would like to share: http://soundings.spia.vt.edu/in-memoriam-wolfgang-natter-may-22-1955-april-29-2018/

  8. I took Wolfgang’s co-taught race class at UK which put me on the path of identity, race, social theory and history scholarship which I have followed for the last 20 years. He was an amazing person who was a delight to learn from. Al Las the person who touched Nietzche’s mustache is no longer, but his legacy will live on through all of those he touched. Thank you Wolfgang!

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