Sitting in my bag just a few feet away is a card I had planned to write to Herr Professor Peter Liermann. I’m not a spiritual person, but the universe had been begging me for a while to let him know the contributions he made to my life. It will be one of my great regrets that I failed to do so.
Yesterday I found myself in a German bar in Seattle, lifting a Pinkus Mueller. An hour later I received the message from a classmate telling me the news of his loss. It’s funny the way the universe led me there to hoist one in his honor, like he and I had done at Einspruch bar in Münster many times twenty years prior.
I’m not someone who talks about heroes or role models, but at a time in life when I needed it, Peter was a father. He challenged and molded my Weltanschauung on politics and society, in language and relationships. The time I spent at the Westfälische-Whilhelms Universität under his tutelage was my formative college experience. To this day, my internal monologue when speaking or reading German is in his voice. I’ve had people ask “Did you grow up in Germany?” Perhaps not chronologically, but practically, and he played a significant role in that.
There was a student who decided to not go to Münster with us, because she found Peter a challenging curmudgeon. I’ve reflected so many times on what she missed. Yes, the one time I used the polite “du” form of the language with Peter I was scarred by his gaze. Yes, I spent many hours in front of a mirror practicing how to say “fünf” and “Deutschland” at his chastising. But, I came to know him as a deeply caring person who accepted our foibles as young people and sought to provide us guidance we were too young to know we needed.
Each student of German at Luther College was expected to complete a brief oral dissertation to qualify for their minor or major. After our assigned time, we compared notes, with many students reporting Peter had engaged them in casual topics like what they intended to do after graduation. Of course he asked me to speak upon the role of the forthcoming Euro and its role in European economic integration. I liked to think of it fondly as his revenge for my frequent misbehavior.
So many of his stories have stuck with me, such as blowing bubbles in a gas mask issued in a bomb shelter as World War Two raged above. Or, his first experience eating wheat bread instead of Roggenbrot upon reaching the United States. To think he wrote the definitive thesis on Konjunktiv Eins makes my head hurt considering the laborious effort. He was the first person I met to declare “I am a socialist.” Anytime I see a train I think of him and thanks to him I know the contexts that give cause for the use of the longest German swear word.
I remember going to hear Professor Jessica Paul, his wife, perform a piano concert, and seeing Peter’s beaming face as he watched. There was something I liked about the way they looked at each other and the way I heard them speak about each other. Now, with another twenty years of life experience and a failed marriage, I can recognize the depth of respect and mature love between them. As a parent, I can put in perspective now the understated pride Peter voiced for his children.
Peter once stated simply that his goal was for us to develop a lifelong appreciation for the German language and culture. Peter hat mir das aber noch viel mehr gegeben und dafür bin ich dankbar. He will be remembered and missed.