Sunday, June 7, 2009

Zwei Smarte Boys

I knew absolutely no one when I first arrived in Tucson in January 1974 to begin graduate studies at the University of Arizona. I had never been to the campus or the city before, having arranged my acceptance there entirely by letter and telephone. To say the very least, it was an eye-opening and humbling experience for me. I arrived early enough to have a few days to orient myself to my new surroundings and to figure out just what the hell I was thinking when I left behind everything and everyone I knew and struck off on some new adventure in the desert Southwest. Soon enough I found myself standing in lines around campus as I registered for classes and searched for a campus job (I landed one as a research assistant in the civil engineering department) in order to earn a little mad money for incidental expenses (bar tabs, bail, etc.). I also had my first face-to-face meeting with the chairperson of the Department of German; the individual who accepted me into the graduate program and who would ultimately hold my destiny in his hands.

Professor Max Dufner was born June 17, 1920, in Switzerland. Raised in southern Germany, he immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy, settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He served as an interpreter in the US Army during the war, and eventually received his Ph.D. in German from the University of Illinois. He taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for several years before moving his young family to Tucson where he became chairperson of the German Department. I knew him only by name and bona fides when I first walked into his small, book-filled office on the third floor of the Modern Language Building . . . my home for the next two and a half years.

He arose from behind his desk, everything on it neatly stacked and in its proper place, to shake my hand and invite me to be seated. A rather short man with neatly cropped and graying hair, horned-rimmed glasses, and sporting a shirt and tie encased in his buttoned-up tweed sports coat. He was quite proper and formal as he spoke with gravity about my course work over the coming semesters. Even so, his small, thin-lipped mouth evidenced an almost perpetual hint of a smile. I would come to know him as a man of towering intellect who over those early months left me intimidated more often than I might have admitted at the time. That said, I liked him from the very first moment I met him. I knew he would “ride me hard and put me up wet,” but I welcomed the challenge and the opportunities he offered me.

I took a number of courses under Professor Dufner - a rather grueling seminar in classical German literature during that first semester. This was followed by a two semester seminar during which my fellow graduate students and I attempted to dissect the intricacies of Goethe’s Faust (Parts I and II) line by line, and word by word. This remains one of my most rewarding academic experiences. Professor Dufner made literature come alive for me for the very first time. When I made my oral defense at the completion of my master’s program, Professor Dufner asked me a number of probing questions about Goethe’s masterpiece, and upon the completion of my response he turned to the others on my examination committee, a wide smile this time, and said “Herr Rogers kann Goethe.” [Mr. Rogers knows Goethe.] No higher praise in my book!

My Faust studies were perhaps eclipsed only by an independent study seminar on the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) which I attended along with Robert Goebel, a fellow comrade-in-arms and a true friend ever since. The two of us would attend weekly meetings in Professor Dufner’s office where he would grill us on minutiae pertaining to this most enigmatic and challenging German poet. At the end of this colloquium, Bob and I were invited to present the results of our independent research before the Palmenorden: Die Forschungsgemeinschaft des Germanistischen Instituts [The Order of the Palm: The Research Society of the Germanic Institute]. All the while Professor Dufner sat in the front row and gently nodded his head up and down, his tight-lipped smile telling us we had done our job well. Not much was said, but we knew.

The departmental faculty and graduate students would occasionally meet on Friday evenings for a traditional “Stammtisch.” This is not easily translated into English but it refers to a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests and usually by invitation only. Our “Stammtisch” was any table located on the outdoor patio of the Cushing Street Bar, an adobe structure dating back to 1860, when Tucson was just a small, dusty desert outpost. During our time it had become a popular watering hole in the historic Barrio Viejo, on the southern fringe of downtown. These evening gatherings offered an opportunity for professors and students . . . a small community of German scholars . . . to sit down over pitchers of beer and bring down the more formal classroom barriers. And since most of us graduate students were also teaching assistants, it taught us a valuable lesson – to remember where we came from, how we got to where we are, and what we hoped to pass on to our own students who look to us for knowledge and guidance.

Following our baptism under fire before the Palmenorden, Bob Goebel and I were feted at one of these gatherings on Cushing Street. We rode to the event with Professor Dufner, and not much more was said about our presentation. Instead, Professor Dufner told us about an article by Nina Gruenenberg in a recent edition of the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. The subject of the article was the rapid ascendency of two members of West Germany’s Social Democratic Party in the city halls of the old Hanseatic cities of Bremen and Hamburg. But Professor Dufner was not that concerned about this matter. Instead, he locked on the title of the article - “Zwei smarte Boys” - as a prime example of what he hated most . . . the corruption of the German language, the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, by what he referred to as “gemixte Pickles,” a rather obvious reference to the 1927 book of the same title in which Kurt M. Stein collected a selection of poems and other verse written in a mixture of German and English. This was nothing new to Bob and myself. You did not have to sit long in one of Professor Dufner’s classes to understand his deep and abiding love of his native language (although he spoke English without the slightest hint of a German accent). He instilled this same love into his students. One could only hope to understand the literature if one loved and respected the language in which it is written.

During our tenure at the University of Arizona, Bob and I probably had the closest relationship with Professor Dufner of any of our fellow graduate students, and he and I came to refer to him affectionately (but never to his face) as “Dumax,” or simply “the Du” (a clever, we thought, play on the usage of the familiar/intimate “you” in German). To this very day, Bob and I still refer to him as such for we can only think of him with respect and affection. He made us what we are today.

Bob left Tucson before I did to work on a kibbutz in Israel while pondering his future academic plans. He eventually went on to Rutgers where he received his Ph.D in German before joining the faculties of the Virginia Military Institute, and later James Madison where he remains today a tenured professor. My wife and I moved from Tucson in the summer of 1976, the day after America celebrated it’s bicentennial. We spent July 4th packing up our small shoe box apartment and watched the festivities on our cheap black and white television. That evening we wandered over to campus to watch the fireworks. We ran into the Du and his family and we sat together and he asked me about my plans as I prepared to resume my graduate studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. We had come a long way together since that first meeting in his office two and half years earlier. I no longer thought of him only as a professor and mentor. We had become “Kollegen” [colleagues]. But more importantly, we had become friends. During those two and a half years he always referred to me as Herr Rogers. That final evening in Tucson, he shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder and said “Good luck to you, Steve. You will do well.”

The Du and I exchanged letters during the years after I left Tucson, and I saw him on occasion. My work took me to Tucson a couple of times and I was a dinner guest in his home. His eldest daughter, who was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona when I was there, became a good friend and we frequently saw her and her husband after they moved east. The Du and his family would come to visit and there were chances to resume our contacts.

The last time I would see him was around Christmas, in 1993. The Dufner family had gathered for the holidays at his daughter’s home and this afforded the opportunity for Bob Goebel and I to meet with our friend and mentor . . . the first time the three of us were together in almost 20 years. Sitting in that drawing room in Richmond, our beloved Dumax asked us whether we remembered that drive to the Cushing Street Bar, in the Spring of 1975, and that article in Die Zeit? It was then that he confided in us that he always considered Bob and me his “zwei smarte Boys;” he was always confident that we would both make something of ourselves in the community of German scholarship. Any remaining barriers between professor and student came down that day. We had become, in every sense of the word, “Kollegen.” My wife, a photographer who tries to be prepared for any and all “Kodak moments,” would from time to time carry potential photographic props. On this occasion it was a bag of cheap dime store sunglasses that would frequently show up in photographs of family and friends. That day, before it was time to part company, Sally Ann took some group pictures. As a lark, we brought out the sunglasses, and to my utter surprise, the Du agreed to a formal portrait with his zwei smarte Boys. This photograph says a thousand words I need not say here.

Professor Max Dufner passed away in Tucson just over a decade ago, on May 22, 1999. After his death, his daughter shared with me several things her father had said and written about me over the years; one being the letter of recommendation he wrote on my behalf when I applied to the University of Maryland. She also gave me a number of prized books from her father’s library - volumes of Schiller, Goethe and Hölderlin, many of them full of neatly written notes, the same volumes he used in the classes in which I was a student. They now have an honored place in my own library.

I think of my old friend often, and always fondly. I have, over the years, been blessed with many fathers . . . men who have conducted me through various stages of my life and provided support and guidance in my own explorations. Professor Dufner - the Du - stands close to the pinnacle of these fatherly figures. I miss him, and I will never forget him as long as I draw breath. This boy would not have turned out smart without him. Thanks, Max!

NEXT WEEK: Andrew’s World


  1. Steve,
    It is really great to read these wonderful anecdotes about my grandfather. The picture is priceless as well. I can picture his smile when he said “Herr Rogers kann Goethe.” Hope you all and my mom have a great visit this weekend.
    All the best, Michael

  2. Hello,

    It was a pleasure for me, and especially for my mother (81), to read about the great memories you have of Max Dufner. We never met him, but he happened to have a french mother, related to mine. She would like to gather a few informations about her old new world's relatives ; so do excuse me if I take the liberty to ask you to forward this email to Michael. I am a physics teacher in Lorient (Brittany, France). Thank you.

    Best regards,

  3. I took two courses from Dr. Dufner as an undergraduate at the U of A in the early 80s. I, too, can imagine the smile on his face when he said, "Herr Rogers kann Goethe." I purposely googled his name and came across this posting, because I remember him as one of my favorite professors of all time. I can still remember his vivid description of Gothic architecture, and have used his words to explain it to my kids when we were in Europe. I like to tell my kids the story of the 1:00 PM class I was taking with him. He was showing slides of his most recent trip to Switzerland. I put my head down and promptly fell asleep. From out of the fog I suddenly heard, "Herr Paton, are we disturbing your sleep???" He even reminded me of that when I later asked him for a letter of recommendation.....
    Clark Paton