by Joe Fugate
Ursula Leonhardt—director of the Kalamazoo College study abroad program in Erlangen, Germany, for nearly 30 years—died on September 16, 2011.
“Biographical details alone hardly do justice to this remarkable woman whose life affected so many others, including countless ‘K’ alumni,” wrote Joe Fugate, Professor of German and Director of Foreign Study, Emeritus. “She was justifiably regarded by her students and all who knew her as a master teacher, whose sharp mind, ever-inquiring intellectual curiosity, and encyclopedic knowledge made her a challenging and inspiring teacher.
“She was, in her own words, a passionate teacher,” he added. “When offered the position as director of the international education office at the University of Erlangen she at first declined and finally accepted on the condition that she could continue teaching. She served in that position almost three decades.
“Her ability to relate to young people, to challenge them to do their best, and to advise and counsel them is legendary.”
What follow are two remembrances of this extraordinary woman. The first by Fugate, the second by Carter Dougherty ’92.
Ursula Barchewitz was born on October 26, l919, in Habelschwedt, Grafschaft Glatz, Lower Silesia (now a part of Poland) in the eastern part of Germany, where her ancestors had been living for 600 years. She died in Darmstadt, having moved there to be near her son after suffering a fall in her apartment in Erlangen in late spring. She is survived by her son, Matthias, and his wife, one sister, and a nephew.
In l938 Frau Leonhardt received her “Abitur” (German school-leaving certificate) and thereafter did her compulsory civilian service for six months on a farm near Fulda. Wishing to prepare herself to become a teacher of German, history, and sport/physical education, she spent her first year of study in Elbing near Danzig, which was followed by further periods of study—interrupted by additional periods of civilian service due to the war—in Vienna, Tübingen and Freiburg.
In July l944 she married Helmut Leonhardt, M.D., in Silesia, who became a prominent professor of medicine and the author of numerous text books that were translated into fifteen languages. Shortly after the wedding he had to leave for Russia and was not to return until three and a half years later from Russian captivity. Helmut predeceased his wife in March 2000.
After the destruction of Freiburg in November 1944 in a bombing raid from which she narrowly escaped with her life, Frau Leonhardt returned to Silesia. Though the Russian front came closer and closer, her mother did not want to abandon the family possessions. But she agreed that her two daughters (Ursula and her younger sister) should get out, which they did in March l945 on the last train of refugees from Breslau via Prague to Nuremburg, where they found shelter with the family of her husband’s best friend. For a second time she narrowly escaped death when this house was struck by American shells and went up in flames.
After the end of the war in May l945 her sister, who was fluent in English, was assigned to an American Engineer Unit as translator. The Americans made sure their German workers had housing, so Frau Leonhardt and her sister were given two rooms in a house at the entrance to the Palace Park in Erlangen, which, ironically, was later to become the Foreign Student Office of the University, of which Frau Leonhardt would become director.
After the University of Erlangen reopened in the fall of 1945, she passed her first exams following two semesters of study and was immediately assigned a teaching position in a Gymnasium in Erlangen. In the meantime, the fate of their mother, who had stayed behind in Silesia, was a major concern to the two sisters. After the end of the war the victorious powers decided to cede a number of provinces in the east of Germany, including Silesia, to Poland or Russia, resulting in the forced expulsion of the German population.
In the summer of l946 the two sisters received a telegraphic plea for help from their mother in Westphalia, where she had been transported by freight train upon her expulsion from Silesia. Overjoyed to learn she was alive, they saw no way to bring her to Erlangen in the almost complete absence of public transportation. Fortunately, Frau Leonhardt’s sister’s American boss provided them a vehicle, a driver, and an officer that enabled them to get their mother to Erlangen, an act of kindness which was never forgotten. The return of her husband in l947 and the birth of their son Matthias, who today holds a professorship in Frankfurt, led to a three-year hiatus in Frau Leonhardt’s teaching.
In l955 Helmut received a guest professorship at the University of Michigan, which became the family’s first direct contact with the United States. From l957 to l960 Frau Leonhardt taught at the German school in Milan, Italy, and upon returning to Erlangen received an appointment at the university to teach German as a foreign language.
In l962 when Kalamazoo College decided to add another foreign study program in Germany, Richard Stavig, then director of the program, visited Erlangen to secure the support of the university and to make appropriate arrangements. He chose Frau Leonhardt as our first director in Erlangen. For 30 years, to the delight of countless students and the confident satisfaction of the program administrators, she continued in this position. In l965 she was appointed Director of the Office of International Education (Akademisches Auslandsamt) of the University of Erlangen, a post which she held until her retirement in l994. In l980 she was awarded the Bundesverdiesnstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit) by the Federal Republic of Germany, and in l988 Kalamazoo College awarded her an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Even in her retirement she exemplified the idea that good teachers need to remain good students. Until the last year of her life she maintained a pace of travel and cultural and intellectual pursuits that would leave most mortals behind in the dust. Her cards and letters from distant places recounted new sights, impressions, and experiences. In Erlangen Frau Leonhardt was, in the words of a German exchange student, “a personality.” As the German saying goes, “sie kannte Gott und die Welt and Gott und die Welt kannten sie” (She knew God and the world, and God and the world knew her).
To borrow from Brecht, she was “Der gute Mensch von Erlangen.” One could scarcely go anywhere with her and not run into someone who knew her, someone whose life she had touched. Many of her pupils during her tenure at two different schools went on to become prominent citizens of Erlangen, where because of her Silesian roots she was a member of the so-called “schlesische Mafia.” This informal group at one time included the president of the university and the mayor.
Frau Leonhardt could easily strike up a conversation with anyone. She was warm, engaging, devoted, and loyal with a wonderful sense of humor and a hearty laugh. One of her favorite stories concerned a Kalamazoo male student who could not understand how her dog, Tosca, obviously a female, could be “der Hund,” masculine, in German. She always had a special affinity for young people and was open and sympathetic to their particular concerns and needs. Her love for them was reciprocated by their love and admiration for her as was evidenced by the countless visits, written communications and phone calls (many from former Kalamazoo College students) that she regularly received from those that she had taught or come in contact with in the Auslandsamt.
Not only was Frau Leonhardt a devoted and loyal friend of Kalamazoo College and its students for almost 50 years, not only a colleague and associate, but also for me a friend in the classical European sense of the word—a friend with whom after an absence we could pick up the conversation as if we had seen each other yesterday, a friend with whom distance was irrelevant, a friend with whom I have enjoyed many wonderful conversations, sharing ideas and impressions, and a friend from whom I received much.
So liebe Ursula, lebe wohl und mögest Du in Frieden ruhen.
(So, dear Ursula, farewell, and may you rest in peace.)
by Carter Dougherty ’92
One gray January morning in 1991, a group of Kalamazoo College students walked into a classroom in Erlangen, Germany. The conversation was painfully self-conscious, and they had a little swagger in their step, the kind that only a first-time study-abroad student can have.
“Did you get to Paris during the holiday break?”
“Yeah, sure. You should check out Copenhagen, Denmark.”
“Berlin is where it's at."
“No, no, you have to go to Greece.”
And, inevitably with a smirk: "What did you do in Amsterdam?"
Then Ursula Leonhardt, the director of the College's program in Erlangen, told us about her holiday vacation. She had toured the Arabian Peninsula.
Now this was 1991. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, the U.S. military had deployed in Saudi Arabia to oppose him, and “K” students had abandoned trips to Istanbul because it was too close (some 1300 miles, roughly the distance of New York to Miami, too close) to Baghdad. And Frau Leonhardt, a sprightly 71 years old at the time, had gone to Arabia.
I still remember the thought I had, slack-jawed, as I looked at the College's longtime program director in Erlangen: “I want to be like you when I grow up.”
"I want to be like you when I grow up."
Until she died last September at age 91, Frau Leonhardt—she was always a very proper "Frau Leonhardt" to me—showed the kind of spirit that took her to a region that the rest of us dared not experience in early 1991. She never hesitated to take up what life had to offer, even at an age that screams retirement to most people.
Her pace of activity never failed to amaze me. James Landis, an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, famously worked his mind "like a brewery horse." For the German Frau Leonhardt—who could hoist her own beer glass if the occasion demanded it—the simile fit.
Well into the 1990's her work was shepherding groups of “K” students into German language and culture. And play might be the congress of art historians held in the foothills of the Alps, or weekend excursions to Italy to inspect this or that Renaissance masterpiece. Perhaps the conference on Christian-Muslim understanding in Prague. Or Russian lessons. I can't recall any stories of vacations devoted to idle beachgoing and pulp novels.
After foreign study, I kept in touch with Frau Leonhardt, first when I returned to Germany for a senior project, and later when I came back again after graduation. Then there were letters, written in the perfect script and grammar of a bygone Germany. Then, finally, during the five years I worked as a correspondent in Frankfurt, we saw each other from time to time.
Visiting Frau Leonhardt in Erlangen, a cozy college town, I really had to be on my game. She interrogated me assiduously when we met for the first time after I'd worked as a journalist in central Africa' s rougher spots. What about Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis? (We cover a few hundred years of history.) And Congo? (We take a virtual tour of a country the size of western Europe). What about Sudan? (A still-bigger country.) Whew.
When I would visit her apartment in Erlangen, she would point to brochures and newspaper advisories for lectures around town. “1725: Turning Point in Bavarian Fresco Techniques?” Or how about “Medieval Concepts of Evil in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.” Okay, so these titles might be apocryphal, but the general point is not: her mind was hungry and curious to the very end.
Her favorite locale in Erlangen was Café Menguin, a somewhat dowdy place that looked out onto the Palace Gardens. There, over lunches and cakes with coffee, I came to appreciate during the last years of her life what underpinned her intellect: a desire to learn, and a willingness to discard old assumptions, or even prejudices. No example of hers was more inspiring to me than this one.
She was born Ursula Barchewitz, and her family came from Silesia, in what is now Poland. Circumstances at the close of World War II had separated family members—some were homeless refugees, others students, one was a prisoner-of-war. The family’s eventual reunification in southern Germany (with the help of a U.S. Army officer, which prompted Frau Leonhardt to give back to young Americans through Kalamazoo College) must have been a vivid lesson in how drastically old assumptions can evaporate.
She never expressed bitterness about her family's expulsion from its ancestral homeland of Silesia. For decades, a few German politicians made careers out of these "lost German territories," and she privately despised them for it, in words as harsh as I ever heard from her. She knew the loss of a home paled in comparison to what millions of Europeans lost to German barbarism.
To shed a prejudice one must first acknowledge it. Germans her age would have grown up regarding their eastern neighbor Poland as a bit backward, she conceded. Thus, with a bit of wonderment, did Frau Leonhardt take in the newfound vitality of Poland, on a trip there as she neared her 90th year, as it roared back from a half-century of war and dictatorship. "They are going to pull it off, the Poles," she said.
Toward the end of her life, Frau Leonhardt was in the habit of repeating a favorite aphorism: Jeder Tag ist ein Gescheck. Every day is a gift. Ursula Leonhardt was a gift as well, to me and to generations of Kalamazoo College students.
Photo 1 - Frau Leonhardt, Carter Dougherty ’92, and Carter’s daughter, Lucinda, in the Palace Gardens of Erlangen, summer 2008.
Photo 2 - A 1960s-era foreign study meeting in Palma de Mallorca. Pictured are (L-R): Jacques Chauvin, Professor of English and Director, Office of Course for Foreign Students, University of Caen; Joe Fugate, Associate Director of Foreign Study and Associate Professor of German; Wigbert Holle, Director of Academic Foreign Office, University of Bonn; Ursula Leonhardt, Director of Academic Foreign Office, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and Director of Kalamazoo College Foreign Study Program-Erlangen; and Dick Stavig, Professor of English and Director of Foreign Study.
Photo 3 - Ursula Leonhardt on June 11, 1988, the day she received an honorary degree from Kalamazoo College.