December 2, 2015 at 9:12 am

Geography Professor Hubert G. H. Wilhelm, 1931-2015

Dr. Hubert G. H. Wilhelm passed away on Friday, Nov. 20, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 84, reports the Athens Messenger.

Hubert Wilhelm

Hubert Wilhelm

“Hubert epitomized the ideal of a professor; was never concerned about counting publications, or where the next grant was coming from, he simply did what he enjoyed and did it very well with grace and humor,” says Dr. James Lein, Professor of Geography at Ohio University.

“My first year at Ohio University was Hugh’s last before he retired,” adds Dr. James Dyer, Professor and Chair of Geography. “Most of the faculty at that time had been together since the 1960s and early 1970s, and I was still trying to learn the ropes. His contemporaries clearly respected Hugh. As with the other current faculty who overlapped with him, I remember Hugh as a genuinely warm and considerate individual. In the years after his retirement, I discovered the high esteem that others had for Hugh, reflecting back on courses they took with him back in the day. Hugh was also clearly passionate about geography; I remember the last faculty meeting he attended in which we were voting on his replacement. Hugh strongly advocated for Tim Anderson, even pounding his hand on the desk to accentuate his point – it reminded me of Khrushchev at the UN!”

Anderson, now Associate Professor of Geography, had other opportunities to witness Wilhelm’s advocacy and passion.

“With regard to his academic reputation, he was for many years active in the Pioneer America association, an interdisciplinary group of academics and lay practitioners interested in material culture and its manifestation in the cultural landscape. He was in fact for several years a ‘driving force’ in this organization, and one of the organization’s student scholarship funds bears his name. His work was an excellent example of the kind of ‘traditional’ cultural/historical geography scholarship combining meticulous fieldwork with detailed archival research that defined that subfield in the United States between 1930 and roughly 1985. Like many of his generation of cultural/historical geographers, he had a passion for documenting and understanding spatial variations in the ‘built environment’ of North America. This passion colored his teaching and rubbed off onto his students.

“When I first arrived on campus in the summer of 1996,” Anderson continued, “Hubert took me on three day-long jaunts throughout central and southeast Ohio, introducing me to the region through the eyes of a master observer of the cultural landscape. He was one of the kindest persons I have ever met in this regard.”

Dr. Brad Jokisch, Associate Professor, also overlapped for a year with Wilhelm.

“First, everyone in the department respected him…. Ron Isaac once said he’s the only chair who could have been reelected indefinitely. He had a reputation for making everyone earn a high grade.… Perhaps most striking about him was the lasting impression he made on so many students. I still hear, but used to hear more, ‘You teach in Geography…I took a great class from that German guy…Wilhelm. I loved him. He had great stories, was very interesting, and showed how much he cared about geography and his students,'” said Jokisch.

“I also know he went out of his way for students,” he added. “An Ecuadoran woman who graduated from here many years ago recounted how he did an independent study with her when she needed the credits for her visa. I also spoke with a teacher who took a graduate seminar with him when she was teaching full-time, and he was very accommodating with the timing of her workload. More than anything his consideration for her other commitments and the empathy he showed left a lasting impression.

“He was genuinely curious, had high standards, and spent his career inspiring students. He also seemed to mistrust administrators!” Jokisch said.

Dr. Geoffrey Buckley, Professor, remembers the last class Wilhelm taught.

“When I was invited for an interview here in 1998, I gave a guest lecture in Hugh’s class—the very last class he taught at Ohio University. It is a connection to Hugh that I will always cherish. He was one of the founding members of our department and a great role model.

“What I will always remember about Hugh is the impression he made on his students,” Buckley said. “Whenever I encounter an older alum from the department, Hugh’s name almost always comes up in the conversation. People will say he was the one who inspired them to become a major or they will recall a story he told or a field trip he led. His students really loved and admired him.”

Dr. Dorothy Sack, Professor or Geography, shared an office wall with Wilhelm.

“I am very saddened by Hubert’s passing. He was a wonderful human being—warm, compassionate, open, genuine, and forthright—and a wonderful geographer. I was fortunate to have had the office adjacent to Hubert’s for a few years, from the time I started at OU until he retired. He was always very kind to me, and I learned a great deal by hearing and seeing on a daily basis how he interacted with students. He always had time for students,” Sack said.

“He greeted every student enthusiastically, showed interest in them as individuals, praised their accomplishments, offered realistic advice, and encouraged them to achieve.  I never heard any student utter one word of complaint about Hubert or his classes. The students really loved his classes and thought very highly of him.

“I remember fondly how, at faculty meetings, Hubert would punctuate his discussion of something he felt strongly about by hitting the table with his fist!

“Hubert was a true gentleman, and I feel very grateful to have known him,” Sack said.

“Wilhelm was a distinguished Professor of Geography at Ohio University, where he taught for 35 years, the devoted husband of Constance, who preceded him in death by a year and a half, and the proud patriarch of a family that consists of three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren,” the Messenger reports.

Wilhelm was born in what is today called Krauschwitz, a village in lower Silesia, on the German side of the border with Poland, on July 31, 1931. His childhood coincided with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the onset of World War II. When he was 13 and a student at a boarding school in Potsdam (a Berlin suburb), his father, Carl, a captain in the German Army, was reported missing in action on the Russian front. His remains were never found.

With the end of the war and the collapse of the German economy, Wilhelm, his mother, Alice, and his younger brother, Ulrich, had no means of income or sustenance and faced starvation. They abandoned their home and sought refuge with family members in the Thuringer Forest of what had become East Germany.

When it became clear that the new communist leaders and the schools that they ran had little interest in the sons of former German military officers, plans were made to seek educational opportunity elsewhere. With forged documents, Wilhelm made his way to West Germany and began an apprenticeship in farm management on the Horlachen experimental farm in northern Bavaria.

Because he had had some training in English, Wilhelm was encouraged to apply for a rural student exchange program sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. He was accepted, and in July of 1950, he and 80 other rural German young people departed the port of Bremerhafen by ship bound for the United States of America.

Read the rest of his story in the Athens Messenger.

Gifts may be made to the Ohio University Foundation in support of the Hubert G. H. and Constance C. Wilhelm Scholarship.

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