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In Memoriam: Ross Vander Meulen

Ross Vander Meulen

One of Knox College’s longest serving faculty members, Ross Vander Meulen, Professor Emeritus of German, passed away on Tuesday, April 25 at the age of 87. In a distinguished and multifaceted career spanning more than four decades at Knox, Vander Meulen taught three languages, served in the academic administration, and even briefly coached cross country. 

Vander Meulen taught German from 1968 through 2000. He occasionally taught Latin and English, chaired the Modern Languages Department, and from 1979 to 1983 served as Associate Dean of the College. After his retirement, he continued teaching advanced courses in German.

He is survived by his wife, Kay, two children and their spouses, four grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

“Ross was a fixture on Knox’s campus for over 50 years,” said Todd Heidt, Professor of German, Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and Chair of the International Studies program at Knox. “For much of that half-century, Ross was the heart and soul of the German program. Even after retiring in 2000, he continued to teach a course or two a year into the 2010s and ate lunch regularly at German Table, right up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His ability to quote literature from memory was often on display at German Table—whether it was Goethe’s great insights into life or one-liners from Mark Twain’s essay, ‘The Awful German Language.’ As that anecdote suggests, he had a great sense of humor, too. His passion for all things German was absolutely infectious, and he thrived off of interacting with students and fellow faculty. Ross touched every part of campus over his time at Knox, and Knox was all the better for it.”

Vander Meulen wrote scholarly articles on a wide range of topics from his specialty in 18th century German literature, to the Dutch philosopher Erasmus and Protestant theologian Martin Luther, and the application of mathematical logic to German and English vocabularies. He also wrote short stories, which he presented at public readings on the Knox campus.

An avid runner and cyclist, Vander Meulen, in the 1970s, briefly coached Knox's cross-country team. In his honor, the team dubbed themselves “Vandy’s Dandies.”

A keen observer of campus life and national politics, Vander Meulen wrote an essay in 1972, “The College’s Role in Revolution,” which placed events of the 1960s into a perspective that stretched back more than 400 years to student riots that occurred in Germany during the Protestant Reformation.

“My first class with him was very challenging, Introduction to German Literature,” recalled Gary Schmidt ’89, Professor of German and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Wright State University in Ohio, and a visiting professor at Knox in 2001. “Without that experience and the push to expand my vocabulary and reading knowledge, I doubt I would have gone on to become a fluent German speaker and eventually a professor of German. During my senior year, Professor Vander Meulen agreed to do an independent study with me on Goethe; I fondly remember the hours sitting in his office talking about the poetry, drama, and fiction of Germany’s greatest writer. It was such a pleasure returning to Knox in 2001 as a colleague of my former professor, and I marveled at how active he was even in retirement, coming to the weekly German Table lunch conversations in the cafeteria.”

Vander Meulen earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Northwestern University, master’s degrees in English and German, and a doctorate in German, at the University of Michigan. In 1971, he was awarded the Philip Green Wright-Lombard College Award, which is Knox’s highest honor for teaching. In 1991-92, he coordinated the installation of a new computerized language learning center at Knox, supported by a grant from the Booth-Ferris Foundation.

Watson Thomas Funeral Home and Crematory, Galesburg, is handling arrangements. Family services will be held at a later date. Read the full obituary

To celebrate Vander Meulen’s retirement in 2000, several Knox alumni offered their thoughts, which have been excerpted here:

Roger Strukhoff ’77

Herr Doktor Vander Meulen was a hoot-and-a-half: a brilliant mind, a marvelous teacher who was engaging and demanding, an enormous and unforgettable personality.

I merely took, rather than “studied,” German from him for two years, as part of a large group of my fellow music majors who wanted to be able to read not only the notes, but the words, of the great Germanic composers. (Had I actually “studied” German with him, I might have actually earned an A from him as well!)

One of my classmates, a non-music major and dorm mate by the name of Fred “Der Braunschnauz” Bucholz, used to talk of joining Ross on his morning runs around the track in an attempt to get those coveted A’s. (Fred did manage to pull some A’s, but I'm sure it was due to his incredible work ethic rather than a lapse in Dr. Vander Meulen’s ethics!)

“Deutsch ist logisch,” sagt Herr Doktor noch einmal und noch einmal.

Herr Vander Meulen is of course far more than merely logical, but also one of the true and great treasures of Knox College over the past 30+ years. He improved the lives of those lucky enough to have studied with him, and is one of those people who simply cannot be replaced.

Mlt freundlichen gruessen,

P.S. Let’s also hear from some of Vandy’s Dandies!

Deb Murphy ’80

I started at Knox after spending my senior year of high school In Germany. I wanted to continue my German studies, but without German on a transcript, no one knew where to place me [in Knox’s German curriculum]. My advisor called Dr. Vander Meulen into the office so we could discuss it. I swear he switched into German mid sentence. And then he started speaking faster. And then we discussed the literature I had read while in Germany. Without having to take any further testing, he was able to place me [in the right course].

I eventually declared German as a second major, after doing an independent study with him during his first year as Associate Dean of the College. (I still prefer Schiller to Goethe—Werther should have killed himself after 100 pages!) We had class in the Gizmo—it was a good excuse to get out of the office. I enjoyed all the classes I had with him, as well as his sense of humor. I still tell people that Murphy is a “gute Deutsche Name!”

Becky Kubis ’94

A non-traditional student, I had my hands full managing a family and a full load of courses at Knox. The last thing I needed was the foreign language requirement: an entire year of classes that met every day! I was advised to take Latin (easier to learn). Ha! I spent more time on Latin than I did all of my other classes combined, and still struggled. The first two terms I got a “B.” Not so bad, but I was discouraged. I dreaded the third term (lots of translation, I was told), and the new teacher. I was having enough trouble without having to deal with someone unfamiliar!

Mr. Vander Meulen was—well—a presence! A large, red haired guy who didn't just speak Latin, he BOOMED It! He seemed to ENJOY it! I was a bit amused. Okay, Latin was kinda interesting, but fun? No way!

When I got my first test back (the usual, a “B”), I was dismayed to find “PLEASE SEE ME” written in large red letters on the last page. My heart pounding, I caught up with him on the stairs after class. “You asked to see me?” He replied something like this, “Oh, yes! Your translations are so wonderful, there’s no reason why you should have so much trouble identifying the parts of speech.” I explained that the section of the tests had always been difficult for me.

Later, in thinking about what he’d said, I had one of those “light bulb” moments. He was right! If my translations were accurate (and wonderful!), then I MUST understand what I’m reading, and therefore, I MUST know which words were the nouns, verbs, and so on. My feelings toward Latin class changed that day. Something “clicked,” and while I still had to work hard, I didn’t struggle as much. My self-confidence grew, and I began to have fun. I especially enjoyed translating. And that term, I got an “A!” Thanks Mr. Vander Meulen!

Jerome K. Fulton ’62

I recommended Ross [apply for a teaching position at Knox] when we were graduate students at the University of Michigan. Ross and [his wife] Kay were part of a circle of friends who lived in Ann Arbor in the late Sixties... We gathered together for many good times and became lifelong friends. One night each week, we watched Star Trek and Ross did not miss many Chicago Bear football games on the tube. When my son, Richard, transferred from Knox to the University of Oregon, the Vander Meulens stored his stuff until it could be retrieved, and we have kept in touch over the years. Finally, Ross was an unforgettable jogger, does anybody else remember his idiosyncratic style? 

Paisly Mitchell Di Bianca ’91

I never had Prof. Vander Meulen for a class, but I have this story: His office was across the hall from the office of my Spanish instructor. Upon my arrival after her office hours, he would inform me that I had just missed her. Soon, we struck up small conversations, and I found myself visiting his office in addition to my Spanish instructor. We learned that we both had ties to the Southeast side of Chicago, and he taught me a few German phrases that I still remember.

Stephanie A. Hasan ’98

I had the pleasure of being Herr Vander Meulen’s student four times in my Knox career. I’ll never forget his great enthusiasm in the classroom; the love of teaching was unmistakable... Herr Vander Meulen continued to be a tremendous source of encouragement in both my academic and athletic life. Thank you!

Cara Jacoby ’97

Knox stresses the one-on-one education that students receive, and several of the best classes I had with Herr Vander Meulen were literally one-on-one. It was such a nice change of pace to meet in his office over coffee to discuss the latest reading from Goethe or Mann or any other of his favorites.

His enthusiasm was undying and his support and encouragement were next to none. He recognized friends of mine who never touched a German book, and his enthusiasm of German washed over them to the point that they would also want to go to German Table just to listen to us babble auf Deutsch...

Gary L. Anderson ’75

I had Dr. Vander Meulen for German 101, 102 & 103. To describe him as a “dynamic” teacher would be like saying Bach had a talent for counterpoint; accurate, but a major understatement. One of my favorite memories of Knox was his emotive interpretation of the Dr. Seuss classic “Fox In Sox”, read at a party in Griffith III [residence hall]. With his long years of language training, he was easily able to navigate through the treacherous waters of Seussical tongue-twisters with ease, even on the first reading. He is one of the truly unforgettable people I have had the pleasure to have known, and has had an influence on my own teaching efforts.

Lindsay Hansen ’99

I never had the pleasure of having Herr Vander Meulen in class, as I only started German my senior year at Knox. However, I spoke with him at Deutsche Tisch each week. Despite not knowing me very well, he took the time (along with his wife Kay) to attend my senior recital, which was very nice. Prof. Vander Meulen made German, especially at the intro level, interesting and exciting for students at Knox...

Dr. Joyce Hertko ’82

During my junior year, I submitted an application to participate in the ACM’s program in Chicago. My grades were not the best, and Dean Vander Meulen asked me to meet him in his office. After a long discussion, he agreed to allow me to participate in the program, and I returned to Knox a stronger and more mature student. Thank you!

Jenny Hahn ’97

Can you believe that I graduated with a German degree, yet only had the pleasure of one class with Herr Vander Meulen. I will never forget his absolute passion for Goethe and how he so wonderfully intertwined his love for Shakespeare into his Goethe class.

Herr Vander Meulen was an absolute dream to work with on my Honors Project. He brought a lot of insight to the project and was very helpful with analyzing the readings.

One thing I remember is his absolute dedication to the lunch-hour German Table. He was there religiously and always encouraged the younger students to come. Once they were there, he really worked with them to help to improve their German.

Knox is a better place because of him! 

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Printed on Wednesday, June 12, 2024