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R. J. Kaufmann

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R. J. Kaufmann R. J. Kaufmann died in Georgetown, Texas, on June 11. He was a force of nature and a man of many epithets: teacher, scholar, mentor, father, husband, provider, thinker, naval officer, gentleman, academic leader, defender, gardener, cook, artist, poet, critic, athlete, counselor, storyteller, humorist, and lover of music, books, young people, favorite cats, and all excellent things and creatures, great and small. Born August 2, 1924, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he was the third of four children and the eldest son. He grew up in Oklahoma during the dust bowl and graduated from Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. He was a gifted athlete and a formidable competitor, especially at baseball, where he pitched and played shortstop, and basketball, where he was the playmaker or point guard. After high school he attended Grinnell, which later awarded him an honorary doctorate, and Princeton University, where he earned a Ph.D. in English and English Literature in 1954. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of London in 1950 and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. During WWII he served as a naval officer in the Pacific theater and conducted surveillance missions in Europe. After losing a close friend in combat near Guam and seeing the destroyed cities of Tokyo and Hiroshima, he vowed to do something significant with his life. A favored young professor at Princeton and "excessively befathered," as he put it, he resisted settling down to the comforts of an Ivy League career. Handsome, tall, robust physically, his independent spirit bridled at the prospect of being kept and displayed as a brilliant specimen from the provinces. His broad interests took him to Wesleyan, then to Rochester, where he was chairman of both the English Department and the History Department, and finally to the University of Texas, where during his 20 year tenure he was a chaired professor, dean, and chairman of the Comparative Literature Department. Along the way he was recruited to serve as the president of Reed College in Oregon and the Folger Library in Washington but declined these and other prestigious opportunities in order to continue classroom teaching, the foremost of his many passions. When faced with a life choice, he preferred to take the direction that would keep the road open before him and foreclose the fewest possibilities. That pattern of choosing, combined with boundless energy and intellectual curiosity, manifested as a refusal to play the game, to go along to get along. His uncompromising nature brought him into conflict with academic politicians who survived and flourished by strategems and manipulation and scandalized those who, in his words, "never did anything for its own sake." He was impatient with cant and hypocrisy, pretension and posturing. In short, he was a man of integrity. He loved sports and watched football, baseball, and basketball games as he read books, listened to music, and viewed films-with concentration, discernment, and passion. He appreciated excellence wherever it could be found, in a Texas-OU game, a Celtics vs. Lakers series, a Humphrey Bogart movie, or the Julliard String Quartet. Students looking for courage and creativity were drawn to him. He mentored scores of young men and women who have themselves become teachers, scholars, and intellectual leaders both inside and outside the academy. He believed in teaching and studying only the best, and for him that meant Homer and Shakespeare, Frost and Yeats, Sophocles and Job, Ibsen and Nietzsche, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann, Tolstoy and Shaw. One summer he taught himself Norwegian to see if Ibsen's language was as formal in the original as it appeared in translations. He grappled with the "divestiture" of Job to discover the nature of redemptive suffering. He defined his work in the humanities, which spanned literature, theater, history, philosophy, theology, and psychology, as the study of the "specifically absent," thus identifying himself and his colleagues as critics of the status quo. He was predeceased by his parents, Mary Allyn Kaufmann and Ralph Jennings Kaufmann; his sister Mary Milne Kaufmann Ford; and his first wife, Ruth Hackett Kaufmann. He is survived by his wife, Leslie Delaney Kaufmann; his brother, Roger Allyn Kaufmann; his sister Virginia Kaufmann Govier; his six children: James Kaufmann, Margaret Kaufmann, Mary Kaufmann Reitano, Sarah Kaufmann Thomas, Christopher Connor, and Courtney Connor Browndorf; thirteen grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and hundreds of students and colleagues whom he mentored, befriended, and inspired. A memorial service in Georgetown is planned for the fall. If desired, donations in the memory of R. J. Kaufmann may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center or the library of one's choosing.



Published in Austin American-Statesman on June 23, 2013
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