Dr. Clifton W. Potter, LC History Professor
Recently, a friend asked me if I could translate a chapter in a book which contained information that they needed to complete a presentation they were preparing. The work in question was only available in German; I did not hesitate. It was a challenge, but it was also mentally invigorating. My study of the German language began while I was a student at Lynchburg College, and it continues to this very day. Except for a very brief period in the 1990s, the study of the German language and literature has been an important part of our curriculum since 1903. Even during the two world wars classes in German were on our campus.
Why bother to learn foreign languages? They are the gateways to truly understanding another culture. One can read the great classics in an English translation, but it is not the same. It is possible to grasp the basics of an author’s work, but the nuance is lost. This is particularly true of authors like Voltaire. Being able to speak a foreign language gives a student the chance to avoid being an ordinary tourist, and to enter another culture.
Among the professors who have taught German were two remarkable women.
Dr. Gertrude E. Teller joined the LC faculty in 1950 and taught German and French until her death in 1960. She was the cousin of Dr. Edward Teller, the supposed father of the hydrogen bomb, and her brother was a member of the last independent Austrian government before the absorption of that nation by Nazi Germany in March 1937. As the Nazis entered Austria, a phone call from her brother sent Dr. Teller fleeing from Vienna with her mother and a suitcase of family treasures. First she went to France, then to England and finally to the United States where she settled. Her classes at LC were popular although she had a reputation for being very demanding and at times difficult. She was fluent in several languages, and she expected everybody else to be equally gifted! If she could not remember a word in English she would use a cognate in German—or French—or Spanish—or Italian.
Helga N. Leftwich grew up in a Germany economically ruined by inflation and depression, and then captured by Hitler. Professor Leftwich’s father refused to join the Nazi party. Those who did not embrace fascism suffered, as did the members of their families. However, refusing to compromise with tyranny builds character and empathy with those who are vulnerable. Mrs. Leftwich was a member of my graduating class and a student of Dr. Teller. She joined the faculty in 1963 and until her retirement in 1990, made the study of German an exciting adventure. She was a master teacher who easily exceeded her mentor. I audited her beginning and advanced classes in German for a number of years. Thanks to her I was fluent enough to spend a summer at the University of Innsbruck in Austria—and to enjoy the annual German Advent service. Our German program today is one of the best in the area and growing with each day that passes.