Wednesdays with Diether (2003)

Opinions, Observations, and Reminiscences from
His Weekly Kalamazoo Gazette Column
by Diether Haenicke (DEE-TER HEN-ICK-A)Wednesdays with Diether

When I first heard of this book I was thinking, all right, some German dude is trying to horn in on the Mitch Albom franchise. Albom is a former sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press and renowned author of best selling book Tuesdays with Morrie—which was made into a movie starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria. His celebrity now transcends the metro Detroit area, where I believe he continues to write, host a radio program, and generally perform good deeds.

Well, who knows what prompted the title Wednesdays with Diether, but it’s an entirely different kind of literary exercise than what you got with Mitch. For one thing, Diether Haenicke is the paragon of the academician and scholar, which activities continued to inspire him as he became president of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (1985-1998). For another, Dr. H., born in 1935, is a German immigrant who came the United States in the early 1960s. [He taught at Wayne State University in Detroit, which is where I attended college… he’s about 15 years ahead of me, a Baby Boomer. Much of his Southeast Michigan milieu I’m familiar with, and, for that matter, I have a feeling for Southwest Michigan, too, as many of my relatives live near Kalamazoo, I was born there, and my parents both attended Western. :)]

The other connection is thru my former wife’s family, who are also ethnic German immigrants from an area that before WWI was, like, kinda-sorta “Hungary.” Anyway, too much personal information: the book… is amazing. Wednesdays with Diether is a compilation of columns Dr. H. wrote for the Kalamazoo Gazette during his years at Western. The editor breaks down the contents into three parts:

  1. On Campus: Notes from the ivory tower—Some humorous anecdotes as well as profound insights about the general higher education experience in America.
  2. English as a Second Language: Observations of an immigrant nitpicker—As it states, a light yet lively bunch of columns on English and how it’s being used and abused by students, teachers, and everyone else.
  3. As I See It: Observations, opinions, and anecdotes—On family and love, politics, neighborhood, political correctness, and so on.
  4. Memories: Of times and places past—More of Diether’s reflections on his unique life and experiences as a man of learning.

The column format is wonderful, because you can get in and get out quickly if you want to. Although you will find you want to take your leisurely time with Dr. H’s material. He’s the “friend of letters” you never met, but then you do and you realize he’s just like every ordinary guy only more so. Right from the gitgo, his first column shows how naturally entertaining Diether’s journey of stories will be:

In Disgusted in Oshtemo, a frequent visitor to Kalamazoo complains that while her car was stopped “… five Western students standing on the loading area of a pickup truck pulled down their pants and bared their rear ends right into my face. Although I could not see their faces…” Diether commiserates with the presumably elderly Mrs. Catery, then offers this:

“However, I am puzzled by one question. If indeed you could not see the persons’ faces but only those anatomical areas that so disgusted you, how could you tell that you were exposed to students, and Western students in particular? Is there a common denominator that identifies certain rear end features as those of Western students?” — page 8

Later in that section, he bemoans the excessive pay and benefits of high-level university officials: “The job is demanding and difficult, and presidents should be well paid; but there is a line between good pay and appropriate benefits and wretched excess…. Corporate-level compensation is inappropriate in tax-exempt institutions with charitable tax status. If larger paychecks are needed anywhere, they are needed for [several of the part time workers and faculty, lowering tuitions, etc.].” Diether also spends a column or two on wretched excess in college sports.

Then moving to the section on loyalty to language, Dr. Haenicke comments on how high-school standards for English and grammar have pretty much evaporated:

“In my German language courses, I spend too much of my time teaching college freshmen plain English grammar. I can no longer assume that high school graduates are familiar with even basic grammatical terminology. Only with great hesitation do I throw out terms like ‘adverb,’ ‘possessive pronoun,’ or ‘transitive verb,’ realizing full well that most of my students are no more familiar with these terms than they are with the trainstops of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.” — page 55

He also looks at—and decries—the onslaught of political correctness in language, recounting the 1999 story when a Washington DC official told subordinates, “I will need to be niggardly with this fund.” Which created a firestorm in the Mayor’s office, leading to the resignation of the official. But mostly Diether’s comments are lighter, as reflected in the title of this column on usage: “Incensed at ‘incent’? Don’t decool as I present.” He has the love of language of a first-rate editor and writer, so this is a section dat be resonatin’ wit me.

Then the final two, more personal, chapters. Consider his column: “Happy Birthday card to Detroit says, ‘Get well soon.'” He acknowledges the age of great European cities, but Detroit at 300 (in 2001) encompasses the history of the country. He then goes on to recount how much the city has meant to him and to his family, how vital Detroit was when he arrived in 1963. He still loves the city; his feelings jibe with my own, as I recounted in a column last year.

There are far too many key anecdotes and commentaries in the book to share pieces of in this column, and the final two sections are the best of all. Because these reveal the depth SunFLOWerand humanity of this magnificent soul, the benevolence of him. This book will make you smile and think, perhaps a bit wistfully. I feel we lost a great spiritual leader when Diether Haenicke passed on, but his works live always.


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