Eulogy for Christof Andreas Wegelin
by Jacob Andreas Wegelin
(This was delivered at the memorial gathering for Christof Wegelin, 21 November 2002, at the Eugene Friends Meeting in Eugene, Oregon. Images in this document appeared in the printed memorial program.)
In the last year of his life, my father had been diagnosed with "end-stage heart disease." Now, in my parents’ house, to get from the bedroom to the living, dining, cooking area, you have to climb ten steps. So, during the last year of his life, first he climbed those steps twice a day, and then, toward the end, he was climbing it once a day. Also once a week he climbed eight steps from the carport to the living area, because he always not only accompanied Mummy when they went grocery shopping, but he drove. The day he died, he died after breakfast, sitting at the breakfast table, with Mummy, gently arguing over which composer was being played on the radio. That morning, he had climbed the steps as usual. The last three steps are difficult because there’s no railing. And so Mummy tried to help him, but he wouldn’t let her help him. He said, "I have to learn how to do it myself."
Daddy chose directions in his life that were more difficult and more adventurous than he needed to choose. Most of you know he left his home country and his native language to teach the literature of a foreign language to native speakers of that language. Neither my mother, nor my sister, nor I speaks his native language. In fact, I don’t think you can take a course in his native language anywhere in this country, because his native language is not German, it’s Swiss-German. Germans themselves can neither speak nor understand Swiss-German. Daddy left a secure job in an up-and-coming engineering firm where his uncles were directors in the firm. He left this job in the middle of the Great Depression, in 1936, to start studying literature.
His lack of complacency was not just a matter of his big decisions, but it was an attitude. His attitude was that there was something he didn’t know, that he had to find out. My cousin Barney wrote, "He was always asking probing questions, trying to understand everything completely."
His curiosity was naïve. He would ask questions that most people would be uncomfortable asking, but he asked them with such innocence and enthusiasm that usually he didn’t offend. My cousin Helen said, "Talking with your parents is like being turned inside out. It’s like having two giant herons standing on either side of you, gently pecking at you and benignly exposing your entrails."
When I was living in Seattle, one time when my parents were visiting me, we were riding, the three of us, in a city bus. My father said in a loud, carrying voice that at least half the bus could understand, "Which women are you looking at?"
He did a good job of learning our language. Although he studied some English as a boy, or a teenager, when he really started studying spoken English he was twenty-five years old, which is an age at which you do not naturally or easily learn a language. You have to learn it through conscious, deliberate effort. At that time he learned a good English, that is, a British English accent. Later he came to this country and he did a good job of learning how to speak like an American. He also was fascinated by our slang and our idioms. He gleefully learned to use our slang and idioms. But he was – he always felt in some way like a foreigner. He always missed his home country of St. Gallen and Appenzell. He was always struggling to understand what people felt and what they meant. Sometimes he was more successful at it and sometimes less successful.
He said many times that when he found himself in a room with a group of people, he always felt as though he was the youngest person in the room. This was not because he thought he could jump higher or he had smoother skin, although he was very proud of staying in shape. (That was something that he took on later. He quit smoking and he started losing weight when he was middle-aged. ) The reason he felt like the youngest person in the room was because he felt that they knew something that he needed to learn, and he didn’t know.
As a boy growing up in his home town of St. Gallen, St. Gall, Daddy had lots of cousins and aunts and uncles that he was fond of. I’m going to talk about four men in his life: His father, Friedrich Arthur. His brother Freddy, who was thirteen years older than him. And his uncles Jacob and Albert. Daddy’s father died in nineteen twenty-eight, when Daddy was seventeen years old. After that, Freddy was a kind of surrogate father to him. They were very close. They did lots of things together. They played chess together. Daddy could never beat Freddy at chess until nineteen sixty-nine after Freddy had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Daddy went back to spend time with him.
Now: Uncle Jacob and Uncle Albert. Daddy’s parents were never well-off. But Jacob and Albert were doing well. They were directors in a precision-optics firm called Wild [pronounced VEE-ld], located in the town of Heerbrugg, which was ten minutes by train from his home town. After Daddy’s father died, they were grooming him for a career in Wild. In America, you go to high school, then you go to college, and sometime in college or after college you start trying to figure out what you’re going to do for a living. In Europe you have to decide in your teens. You get tracked. And so Daddy was not on an academic track, he did not study humanities, he studied engineering, at the Technikum in Winterthur. And then he started working for Wild. And he lived with his Uncle Jacob in the Schloss Heerbrugg. "Schloss" is German for "Castle." The Schloss was not a fortification, it was a mansion, probably built in the Nineteenth Century. It had a tower, it had its own vineyard with bottles of wine with "Heerbrugger" written on them, and Daddy lived there with his Onkel Jacob, with his aunt Fanny, with his cousins Peter and Helen. His cousin Helen saw him sitting at a table, on his lunch break – she showed me the table later – frantically reading literature – at that time it was German literature – watching the clock, and at the last moment racing off to catch the tram back to work.
In nineteen thirty-six he went on leave from Wild to go to the University College London, to study spoken English and phonetics. Shortly after he got to London, he decided that he was not going back to Wild. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he wasn’t going back to Wild. And so he wrote three letters. He wrote a letter to his mother Nelly. He wrote to Uncle Jacob, and he wrote to Uncle Albert. Freddy’s older son – Daddy’s nephew – Peter, was a boy at the time, and he was present when the letter to Nelly was opened and read. This scene left a strong impression on Peter’s young mind. From his mother Daddy received a hand-wringing letter lamenting the fact that he was giving up this wonderful opportunity. From Onkel Jacob he received a letter saying, "This is interesting. Fanny and I will be taking a trip around the world, and we’ll stop in London. We’ll see you, and we’ll have a good talk about it." From Onkel Albert, he never received a reply.
Twelve years later, nineteen forty-eight, Daddy returned to Switzerland as an English professor, bringing Mummy , his bride. He visited the factory, the Wild factory. Afterwards he was in Onkel Albert’s house, and they were talking, and Daddy thought he’d have some fun, and so he said, "Onkel Albert! I went into the factory, wonderful factory, and I saw the logo that I designed when I was at Wild. You’re using it all over the place. It’s everywhere, on all your instruments, it’s on the factory, and I never got a cent for it!" The smile faded off Onkel Albert’s face. He reached in his pocket, he took out a one-franc piece, he threw it on the carpet, and said, "There."
I want to say one more thing about Daddy’s naïveté, his sense of wonder, his curiosity, his openmindedness. When I was fifteen, I became a religious fanatic. I’m not putting down the religion that I tried to adhere to. But what I did with that religion was weird. It was not a way of feeling or thinking, it was a way of disciplining myself not to feel and not to think. When I was sixteen years old, I left home and moved into a religious commune, which was a very good place to practice not feeling and not thinking. It was run mostly by guys in their twenties, who thought that they were moved by the Holy Spirit, and you obeyed these guys instantly and without question.
My point in saying this: Daddy was blindsided by this. It came completely unexpected, and he was devastated. Later he told me that the two worst things that happened in his life after he came to this country were the death of Freddy by Parkinson’s Disease and my departure for this commune.
My point is that, in spite of how badly hurt he was, he looked at what I was doing and the group of people that I was with, with the same generosity of spirit that he exhibited elsewhere. Daddy was perfectly capable of disliking somebody or something. His dislike was just as definite and passionate as his other emotions. And so there were some people in this group, maybe two or three people, that he didn’t like. But the group as a whole, he treated – he treated us with perhaps more respect – I mean he regarded us, not just treated, but regarded us with perhaps more respect than we deserved. He was agnostic, but he looked at my new faith – or my new attempt at faith – with respect. I was reading the Bible a lot, and he bought me the Oxford Annotated Bible for my birthday. After I moved into the commune he didn’t try to have me rescued from the commune; he didn’t try to have me "deprogrammed" – it was a popular word in the seventies, which somebody, I think at least one person suggested as a solution. He acted as though I could make my own decisions. The only thing he did was try to argue from my point of view, using the Parable of the Talents, that perhaps God would like me to get further schooling. And he copied out by hand Milton’s poem "On His Blindness" in a letter that he sent me.
I’ve mentioned Peter, Freddy’s older son. Peter is not here. But Jürg, Freddy’s younger son, is here. Younger son: that means Daddy’s nephew, and also he is Daddy’s godson. He flew here from Switzerland for this. When I called Peter to tell him that Daddy had died, first Peter moaned, and then he said some things that I tried to write down as he said them. Later I asked him if he would write down what he said. He said "I don’t remember what I said." So I read him my notes. He said, "Okay, I’ll write down what I said." So he sent me some words that were much more studied than what I had written down. So what I have is a composite first of spontaneous speech, and then of something he wrote. Jürg is going to read this in German, and then Jack is going to read an English translation.
[Jake sat down. Jürg Wegelin stood in the back row and read:]
Für uns ist eine Welt weg, eine ganz lebendige Welt. … sehr begeistert … noch ausserordentlich beweglich, erinnerungsstark, und nicht nur "Facts" …
… auch bis in die feinen Regungen des Gemütes, liess er uns teilhaben. Und im Austausch wusste er, aufmerksam und mit lebhaften Empfindungen, teilzunehmen an unseren Fragen und Problemen. Wir haben Christof viel zu verdanken.
[Jürg sat down. Perry J. "Jack" Powers stood in the inner square and read:]
For us a world is gone, a vital world … very zesty, still extraordinarily supple, a vivid memory, and not only facts …
… even to the delicate stirrings of mood, he let us take part. And in return he knew how to take part in our questions and problems, attentively and with vivid emotion. There is much that we owe to Christof.
[The English translation, mainly due to Jake, was written hastily. Perhaps a better translation of the first few phrases is as follows: "For us a world is gone, a world thoroughly alive … very animated … still extraordinarily active, strong in his power of memory, and not just ‘Facts’ …"]
After this point, the following people spoke about Christof, each from where they were in the hall, most of them standing up to speak, in this order:
Jürg Wegelin, nephew and godson
Bob Clifton, student (who played solo, on his guitar, Bach’s Prelude to First Cello Suite).
George Wickes, English Dept colleague
Thure Cerling, son-in-law
Thelma Greenfield, English Dept colleague
Perry J. "Jack" Powers, neighbor and University of Oregon colleague
Lotte (sp?) Streisinger, who used to take a yoga class that Christof also took, in the same building where the memorial service took place
Diane Retallack, the director of Eugene Concert Choir, where Christof sang for years
Tom Maddron, neighbor
Andy Gilmore, friend of the family (whose father, incidentally, designed the building where the memorial took place, or some modification of that building)
Henry "Harry" Wonham, English Dept colleague and co-editor with Christof of Tales of Henry James, a Norton Critical Edition
Bob Jones, neighbor
Edith Maddron, neighbor
Jan Maddron, neighbor
Claire Cerling, granddaughter
Joe Hynes, English Dept colleague
Kay Prescott Kepley, neighbor
Helen Havens, niece.
Thus ends the current typed-up record of the comments made at the memorial for Christof Wegelin. A tape recorder was running while everyone made their contributions, resulting in a very low-quality recording. (Recall that everybody spoke from wherever they were in the hall.) If I (Jake Wegelin) ever get time, I'll try to transcribe it all.
Davis, California, August 2003.home Copyright © 2002, 2003 Jacob A. Wegelin. All rights reserved.