MOUNT VERNON — Edmund P. Hecht, who taught German at Kenyon for nearly four decades, profoundly shaping not only that program but the teaching of foreign languages at the College, has died. Hecht passed away on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at his home near Mount Vernon. He was 80 years old and had suffered from leukemia for many years.
Kenyon’s language lab was Ed Hecht’s creation. For years, he was the technology expert in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. He started the department’s film collection and promoted its signature teaching method, the Kenyon Intensive Language Model (KILM). Hecht also increased the library’s holdings of materials from his native Germany, brought renowned German writers to campus, and, during the height of the Cold War, promoted the study of the culture of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.
Hecht is survived by his wife of 53 years, Dolores, and by three children, Kristina, Kristopher, and Hollie ’84, along with three grandchildren. In accordance with his wishes, the family will not hold a public service.
“What I most remember about Ed is his undying devotion to his students,” said professor of Spanish Linda Metzler, who had an office down the hall and was struck by the hours he spent preparing materials for classes. “He gave his students his all.” When Hecht retired in 1999, after 39 years at the College, alumni traveled from long distances to come to a tribute dinner on campus.
One, Vicki Barker ’78, came from London, where she reports for CBS Radio and National Public Radio. Hecht, she said upon hearing of the professor’s death, “was a meticulous taskmaster who demanded the best of you, and who repaid you with a fierce loyalty and affection. He was always looking for new opportunities for his students. Thanks to him, my classmate Sam Marcus and I became the only two Americans on a three-week summer course in communist East Germany in 1976, an experience which would add depth and insight to my reporting on the fall of communism years later.”
Hecht, who often rode his BMW motorcycle to campus, wearing a black leather jacket, could be a forbidding figure. “He was known for being testy,” said Metzler, “but his testiness was always tempered with humor. He had a uniquely subversive and quirky sense of humor. At a department meeting, if we were arguing or in ill temper, he would say something so unexpected, so hilarious, and so perceptive, that we’d all break up and the tension would dissolve in laughter. And he’d sit there and twinkle, knowing that no one else could do that kind of thing.”
Hecht was a very private man who handled a 13-year struggle with leukemia stoically, said his wife, Dolores. Some people thought him stern, and he was not “a social animal,” but his quiet exterior hid a striking generosity, she said. Dolores, the director of medical social services at Knox Community Hospital for almost 30 years, recalls telling Ed about a poverty-stricken patient. “Ed sent her $100 every month, anonymously,” she said. “He did similar things for a lot of people.”
He could also be clownish, recalled Charles Piano, professor emeritus of Spanish, noting that Hecht enthusiastically supported KILM, which stresses high-energy, playful activities. “He did things that made KILM very popular among students. He got himself a little tricycle and would ride it into the classroom.”
Born on May 10, 1929, Hecht spent his childhood in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. His father captained a ship on the Kiel Canal, and Ed grew to love sailing. He did undergraduate work at the Universität Kiel, Germany, and the Universität Innsbruck, Austria, then came to the United States in 1954. The following year, he received a B.A. from Ohio University, where he met Dolores. He received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1959.
Hecht taught at Colombia, Barnard College, and the Middlebury summer language program before joining the Kenyon faculty in 1960. “It’s thanks to Ed and his persistence that we have a language lab,” said Piano. “He designed it, he got the administration to back it, he researched and acquired all the equipment, and he took charge of it. It was a thankless task.”
Hecht led efforts to incorporate multimedia technology in teaching, created the language department’s film collection, and taught German cinema before it became fashionable. His efforts to improve the library’s holdings included the acquisition of hundreds of works on East Germany, a country in which he had rare expertise and where he developed extensive professional contacts.
“Ed had a front-row seat to some of the most earth-shaking events of the 20th century,” from World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall, said professor of French Mortimer Guiney. As a result, “he didn’t just teach great works of German literature, he taught the whole culture.”
Hecht organized a colloquium on East and West Germany in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell. In 1965, he brought German novelist Günther Grass to Kenyon to receive an honorary degree, and he arranged a public reading by Grass and another noted German writer, Uwe Johnson. Two years earlier, he assembled a large exhibit devoted to the work of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. “Brecht inter Nationes,” including more than a thousand items from theaters around the world, toured several cities during the next few years.
Hecht served as Kenyon’s first director of international education, counseling students who wished to study abroad. He also administered the Middle East Program of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which sent students to Beirut, Lebanon. He returned to Germany almost every summer to study and renew contacts with friends.
Online condolences to the family may be expressed to the family at www.snyderfuneralhomes.com.
Hecht’s family asks that memorial contributions be made to Hospice of Knox County, 17700 Coshocton Road, Mount Vernon, OH 43050.
The Dowds-Snyder Funeral Home in Mount Vernon is honored to have been chosen to serve the family of Edmund P. Hecht.
Prepared by the Office of Public Affairs at Kenyon College.
April 16, 2010