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History's Mysteries

From The Department of Modern Languages: A Bicentennial History 1804-2004

Despite a search of the obvious and not so obvious documents in the library archives, a major question remains unresolved: When was the present Department of Modern Languages officially created out of the Department of German/Russian and the Department of Romance Languages?

Circumstantial evidence gives us some clues:

  1. In the 1958-60 catalogue the departments are listed separately.
  2. On Jan. 31, 1958, Professor Rice writes to President Baker: “I shall be happy to serve as Chairman of the Romance Languages Department from Feb. 1, 1958, to Feb. 1, 1959.” On Jan. 28, 1958, Benson thanks Baker for his “reappointment as chair of the Department of German,” presumably for the same period as Rice (February-February, the usual term at the time).
  3. In 1959-60 Benson and Renkenberger are listed as chairs for the respective departments.
  4. In the 1960-62 catalogue we find “Modern Languages” as the main heading, with German/Russian and Romance Languages faculty listed separately; a chair for each department/section is also listed (Benson and Renkenberger, respectively).
  5. In the Executive Committee Minutes of Dec. 28, 1960, there is a reference to the Department of Modern Languages; and in the Administrative Committee Minutes of May 10, 1961, we read: “Presented request of Modern Languages Department for permission to establish Honors sections.”

Based on the above, it appears that the most likely date for the merging of the two departments was Fall Semester 1960, with perhaps a transition period with two chairs for the respective "language sections." However, in a private communication from Herbert Lederer, Professor of German at Ohio University from Fall 1957 to Spring 1961, he states that during his tenure a merger of the two departments was only under discussion and that most of the faculty were not in favor of a merger. He notes that “it could not have happened before 1961.”  This seems to contradict the information above, but since there were still two chairs during this time, it may be that the merger, although formally proposed, was not yet an administrative “fait accompli.”

With this merger the different languages have actually returned to their 19th-century administrative structure, since from at least 1891 to 1911, French and German were listed under "Modern Languages." The arrival of Lillian Robinson in 1908 meant that the German professor was no longer responsible for the French classes.

Home, Sweet Home

In a description of the German Department for the 1926 Athena (p. 31), Professor Maude Matthews writes that "after wandering about for sometime like the lost tribes of Israel, the German Department now has pleasant and permanent quarters in Ellis Hall." Apparently Romance Languages were already ensconced there, since in a letter to President Ellis from Professor Whitehouse (Spanish) the latter requests a specific room in Ellis Hall (July 18, 1919). With the exception of a two-year renovation of Ellis Hall in the early sixties, the departments remained there until 1998, when the Department of Modern Languages moved to the renovated and expanded Gordy Hall.

Returning to the Nest

Two graduates of Ohio University returned to become chairs of the German and Romance Language departments, respectively. The above-mentioned Maude Matthews (née Cryder) received her B.A. from Ohio University in 1917 and taught during the AY1917-18 (presumably as a replacement for the departed Doernenburg). After receiving her M.A. from Chicago in 1920 while teaching high school, she returned to Ohio University in 1922 as chair when German was reintroduced. Under pressure from the administration to obtain a higher degree, she retired in 1936.

Bert Renkenberger graduated in 1930 and served as a part-time instructor in Spanish before joining the faculty full-time as a French instructor. After receiving his Ph.D. he went on to teach and serve as chair on various occasions until his retirement in 1971.

Russians Infiltrate Ohio Political System!

Well, not exactly, but the Department of Modern Languages can lay claim to having two future Ohio politicians as students of Russian. In the 1958 Athena, the future governor and senator George V. Voinovich is pictured as a member of the Russian Club (p. 239). On the local scene Sara Hendricker, who served as Mayor of Athens for eight years, earned a major in Russian and later taught as a part-time instructor from 1979-83. It was claimed, probably accurately, that Athens had the only mayor in Ohio who could carry on a fluent conversation with members of trade missions from the Soviet Union.