The Professor is lucky. Despite his old age (he is over ninety now) he is still in full command of his body and his brains. He is the doyen in my discipline, and of course may smile when some over-enthusiastic scribbler describes him as the one “who single-handedly renovated” our field, because he was not alone – and I think he’s the first to acknowledge this. But without his institute things would have taken a different course.
When he took over the chair of a small institute in a sleepish Suebian provincial town 57 (!) years ago, das Fach was marginalised, not least because of its unfortunate history in those twelve years. When the professor was given the emeritus status some thirty years later the limited “German” horizon was opened towards an European perspective, and the 19th century “Volkskunde” was replaced with “Ethnology”, a different set of methods and approaches – without a doubt results of a process started by his institute in the late sixties.
He saw colleagues come and go, friends and adversaries. And of course it was time to step aside for the next generation, but that would not mean to fall silent, curl up, and die. A university owns this & that, he was given a working place in a dependance of his former institute, a nicely situated house in an up-market neighbourhood with gardens and narrow alley ways. There stands the desk he visits daily, the house (originally a residence house) holds some collections, a library, you get the idea.
The Ghost was nicknamed by neighbours, they called him the Schlossgespenst, the ghost of the castle, seemingly because he spoke to nobody and silently swished by on his bicycle. The Ghost was in his late sixties, and had studied a lot, among other subjects philosophy and history. As it seems, he never graduated.
Academia is not only filled with happy stories and success, there are always people who, well … are not so lucky. Some simply can not stop being a student, some can not get their stuff together and write a Magisterarbeit or a thesis, some struggle with mental problems, some simply meet an ill fate.
Whatever it was with the Ghost, he simply never left the university. He worked in different institutes as “Hilfskraft” over the years, but a “student temp” in his forties or fifties or sixties – alma mater can have a wide heart for their stumbling sons.
He occupied some rooms on the second floor of that old house more than ten years ago. I think he worked for this institute for very small money, and lived from benefits, Sozialhilfe. As I already said, mother Alma may have a big heart, but …
They offered him another flat, several times. They threatened with eviction. Finally it was the job of a bailiff (“Gerichtsvollzieher”) and a man from the Ordnungsamt, the municipal authority responsible for public order, to get him out and clear the rooms.
The Ghost waited for them on the balcony. He took out a gun and shot at them, thankfully hurting no one, but a bullet went through one man’s sleeve. While the two men on the ground covered behind a car they noticed that the Ghost’s flat was burning. He had set fire to the appartement he should leave. They watched as he tried to go back into the rooms, but he finally decided to escape via the balcony. He slipped, and fell six meters to the ground, finally to death.
And while an emergency doctor tried to save his life, the fire brigade tried to reach the house, situated on a hill with nice gardens and narrow alley ways. When they finally arrived the fire was happily munching through the old wood beams, all that nice paper – in the end the building was totally gutted with only the outside walls remaining, declared unsafe by technicians and forbidden to enter.
All this happened last week. As I read the Professor was still travelling, on a voyage in Africa, unaware of what happened, they could not reach him.