The President’s Professor
Lieselotte Kurth’s ties to Durdens motivate giving
by Matt Getty
July 1, 2008
Lieselotte Kurth, pictured above during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., taught in the Johns Hopkins University German department for more than 25 years before retiring in 1989. Recognized as an international expert on the German novel, she has published three books and numerous articles on German literature.
Lieselotte Kurth is a rare kind of Dickinsonian. She never studied at the college. She never taught a course nor attended an event. In fact, she has only visited the campus once. Yet her connection to Dickinson runs deep enough that she has funded an annual prize for the college’s top German student, created an endowed fund for student research, and, most recently, given the library a complete collection of the works of one of the pillars of 18th-century German literature.
Her connection comes from her unusual perspective on Dickinson President William G. Durden ’71. Of all the people who consider themselves Dickinsonians, she’s likely the only one who can say that she’s corrected “Doc Durden’s” grammar.
“I was the director of Bill’s dissertation,” explains Kurth, a Johns Hopkins University emerita professor of German now living in Towson, Md. “He was one of our best students. He was very much the same way he is now—very enthusiastic, very driven.”
The ties she established with her star pupil lasted long after Durden earned his Ph.D. in German languages and literature from Johns Hopkins in 1977. Having also directed the dissertation of Durden’s wife Elke, Kurth stayed in touch with the couple even after Durden left John’s Hopkins to become president of the Sylvan Academy and then Dickinson.
“She was a very important professor to my wife and me, so we’ve kept in close contact throughout my career,” says Durden.
Shortly after he became Dickinson’s president, Kurth visited the campus and gave her former student high marks on his latest effort. “I was very impressed with the work he was doing at Dickinson,” Kurth recalls. “He had that same energy he had as a student, and I could see he was succeeding.”
But her admiration for Durden isn’t the only motivation behind Kurth’s generosity. She also knows that the funding challenges private liberal-arts colleges face call for increased engagement.
“I feel that a college like Dickinson deserves to be supported,” she says. “Big schools like Johns Hopkins get so much money from so many sources that it is sometimes discouraging to see how smaller liberal-arts colleges are left out. When I saw the work that the school was doing, I just thought it was something I should support.”
Her latest expression of that support is 35 volumes of the complete works of influential German writer Christoph Martin Wieland. Including all of the author’s letters, the gift will offer Dickinson’s German scholars valuable insight into both the author of the first bildungsroman (or coming-of-age novel) and the development of German literature in general.
Beyond the collection’s scholarly value, Durden also sees the gift as a testament to Dickinson’s growing reputation. “I’m delighted that this world-class scholar would consider Dickinson worthy of her attention,” he says. “Entrusting the college with such important books shows a real understanding of Dickinson’s value.”
For Kurth, who continues to research and enjoy German literature in her retirement, the value of the gift has more to do with the enduring value of literature itself. “I think that books will always be important,” she says. “It’s always inspiring to hold something in your hands that was published 200 or 300 years ago and see how much of it is still useful today.”