09 September 2021 | Story Prof Cilliers van den Berg | Photo Supplied
The late German language scholar, Prof Klaus von Delft.

On Saturday, 28 August 2021, the University of the Free State (UFS) community lost one of its erstwhile stalwarts: Prof Klaus von Delft, former head of the then Department of German, later section head in the amalgamated Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French

In retrospect, the designation of being a ‘stalwart’ should be qualified, as Von Delft never was swayed by popular institutional opinions of the times, but rather followed an unwavering sense of integrity in everything he did. His impact on German teaching in South Africa, but specifically in the Free State region, can hardly be overestimated: an academic career that started in 1963 and stretched over decades, and that included numerous academic and cultural initiatives to open up the world of Germany and the German-speaking countries to generations of students. Whether it was through the classical works of Goethe and Schiller, the pathos of the Romantics, the irony of the modernists, or writers struggling with existential questions after the Second World War – for many students, Von Delft opened a new world of ideas and sentiments to be explored. And often the exploration ended where it started: learning more about oneself and one’s place in the world through the gift of language and poetry.

Encyclopaedic knowledge of German literature and culture

Born in the small town of Stutterheim in 1937 (his father was a pastor in the Lutheran church), Von Delft spent the years 1939-1949 in Germany, as what should have been only a visit to a sick grandfather was vastly prolonged with the outbreak of the Second World War. The return to South Africa eventually anticipated a university career in Germanistik (German Studies), where he was responsible for teaching both language and literature, although most of his students will probably best remember his encyclopaedic knowledge of German literature and culture. His career saw many changes on different levels – establishing and continuing a high standard of German teaching at tertiary level, navigating changes in the methodology of foreign language teaching, participating in the merger of three language departments, and always doing everything in his power to arouse and cultivate the interest of young people for the world(s) offered by the words and cadences of his mother tongue. But he also was scholar, administrator, and mentor – even during difficult times when the future of German at the UFS seemed bleak to some. His too early retirement as senior professor did not diminish his interest in his discipline, as he remained willing to avail himself for contract lectures for many ensuing years. And it was a great honour to welcome him to the 28th conference of the Association for German Studies in Southern Africa hosted at the UFS in 2019 – the kind words of many members bore testimony to the estimation in which he was held by many colleagues and former colleagues from the community of German scholars.

Remembering Prof Klaus von Delft

Prof Heidi Hudson, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities; Prof HP van Coller, former head of the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French; Prof Angelique van Niekerk, Associate Professor: Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French; and Ms Ingrid Smuts, one of his former colleagues and later section head of German, remember Prof Klaus von Delft in the following tributes.  

Prof Heidi Hudson, current Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities, shares the following memories:

I have fond memories of my time as a student in Prof Von Delft’s class, as well as the four years I spent as student assistant in the Department of German. It was only after I left the department that I realised what a great role model he was to me. Klaus von Delft was the epitome of integrity, unwavering, consistent, ‘doing’ principle rather than popularity.  Those formative years in the Department of German fundamentally shaped my outlook on the world. What a privilege it is to have known him.  

Prof HP van Coller, former head of the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French, remembers him as follows:

 I got to know Klaus von Delft really well on the Research Committee of the Faculty of Arts (together with the Faculty of Social Sciences the precursor of the current Faculty of the Humanities).

For years, he was the chairperson of this important committee, which at the time – before the system was based on research incentives – was in charge of the allocation of research funds, had to approve research projects, and had to either accept or reject reports.

Klaus was an even, balanced, and fair judge of projects, but had little patience for vague and imprecise formulations and anything that, for him, smelled of opportunism. I still remember our long brawl over an application from a visual artist for a research grant to visit overseas museums. To me it was a fair request, to Klaus it sounded like academic tourism. In the end, he relinquished without a word of reproach to me.

I very seldom saw him angry. Except in the case of a colleague who received a large research award, but just could not come up with his report the day before. His first excuse was that a water leak in the library had rendered his report unusable. It was reluctantly accepted by us. But when he offered the same excuse six months later (admittedly, pipes at the time were pitifully bad), it added fuel to the fire and the German's patience ran out.

As a good researcher, Klaus sometimes had his own research play second fiddle, because he tried to advance his discipline in so many fields: as an excellent lecturer who was always available to students, a tireless champion for German in the context of secondary education, choral music in German, etc. But it was with regard to the management of the faculty where he really left deep footprints: always well prepared, always logical, and always polite. After losing the vote for the deanship by a single vote to Andries Snyman, he did not pull back in indignation, or oppose Andries. He actually proved to be Andries' important right-hand man and confidant for many years. Only someone who puts himself second, acts like this.

All in the interest of academia. In the good old times, a gathering place of free spirits that both sought and shared scientific knowledge. This was the kind of academic and human being Klaus von Delft was. The name ‘Renaissance man’, which is used lavishly these days, suits him well. Cultivated lover and connoisseur of music, literature, the classics, art, nature …

Ave atque vale!

Ms Ingrid Smuts, one of his former colleagues and later section head of German at the UFS, remembers him fondly:

I will remember Prof Von Delft as a man of exceptional qualities: humble, thoughtful, kind, generous, never judgmental, compassionate, always dependable, brilliant, and also witty and entertaining. His wisdom, broad knowledge, and work ethic are legendary. He led by example and stimulated his students to give their best. I, like many others, will remember Prof Von Delft arriving at the university on his Vespa scooter to lecture, long after his retirement. His contribution and selfless support will always be appreciated. His qualities have also found expression in his family. The Von Delfts have been an asset to humanity.

Prof Angelique van Niekerk, Associate Professor: Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French

In 2006, I had to go to his house to pick up a rented cello from the Von Delft ‘collection’ for a nine-year-old imp in my own home. When the passion overcame my son’s possible talent at the age of nine and he asked the ‘uncle’ to “Please play something for me so that I can hear which one is the best”, I thought I would die of shame because of my child’s arrogance. Prof Von Delft smiled, sat down with a twinkle in his eye, and enthusiastically played both cellos, which made the young man feel very important, being able to decide which of the two cellos he liked best for his then prospective music lessons. An adult can indeed talk to children as well! 
The department gladly welcomed the Von Delfts in our midst, even years after his retirement. Sitting close to me at the table during the year-end function in November 2018, he and his wife, Elna, were still socialising and having a great time with colleagues. He handled the really disturbing and unforeseen music (aimed at a noisy teenage market) of a next-door function with charming dignity. This was true to his nature, and definitely intended to spare the hosts (department and former colleagues) further inconvenience.  

Contribution to the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French

We honour his memory as human being and his contribution to the department and the Faculty of the Humanities.

Prof Von Delft will be remembered by everyone whose lives he touched – certainly by a large Bloemfontein community of former students, colleagues, family, and friends. And this remembrance is important – as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Wenn ihr mich sucht, sucht in euren Herzen. Habe ich dort eine Bleibe gefunden, lebe ich in euch weiter (When you look for me, look in your own hearts. If I have found a dwelling there, I will live on in you)."

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