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.