Jim de Jong, my friend, died on October 31, 2011, just one day short of his 70th birthday.
He was a Professor of German at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota from 1969 through 1996, when he was forced to take early disability retirement because of multiple sclerosis. He held degrees from Western Illinois University (B.A., 1964), the University of Chicago (M.A., 1966) and the University of Minnesota (Ph.D., 1975). He was survived by his wife Sheila, daughter Anne-Marie, son Peter (Jill) and four grandsons.
I first met Jim and Sheila over 25 years ago at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church where we all were members.
Jim and I quickly discovered we shared some things in common besides our love for Westminster. We both were born in the same hospital in Keokuk, Iowa–only two years apart. We both held degrees from the University of Chicago. We both were interested in politics and liked to travel. We both then were parents of teenagers with all that that entails. And I at least knew a few words and phrase auf Deutsch.
Jim as a Professor of German had a special love and passion for one of the masterpieces of Germany’s greatest writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His Hermann und Dorothea is a love story of Dorothea, a poor refugee, and Hermann, the young son of a wealthy German businessman. His father is opposed to his son’s marrying Dorothea because she is below their status. Hermann’s mother, however, assists the son in overcoming his father’s opposition to the marriage. For Jim, this was a story that is “eternally valid, in contemporary dress” and could reach students no matter what time or place.
Jim’s collection of 162 editions of this epic poem now resides at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota.
As an undergraduate, Jim spent a year abroad at the University of Vienna. As reported in The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism Jim was befriended in Vienna by a lecturer from Czechoslovakia who was forced to try to recruit Jim as a spy for the Communist regime. After I learned this, I liked to tease Jim that I did not know if he had been–and perhaps still was– a spy for the Communists or for the CIA. Jim never answered my implicit question, and only redently did I learn from Sheila that Jim was interested in a CIA career, but was disqualified because of her British citizenship.
Jim was a good friend, always interested in what my wife and I, our sons and grandchildren were doing. Our Ecuadorian granddaughter still remembers at a very young age being in Jim and Sheila’s home one Christmas when in accordance with German custom, they decorated their Tannenbaum with actual burning candles.
Jim had the gift of being able to laugh at himself. He liked to tell us about his and Sheila’s vacation in Scotland to visit some of her relatives. Jim became ill and needed medical care. No medical doctor was available. “No problem,” Jim added–with a twinkle in his eye–”I was treated by a veterinarian.”
Later Jim discovered that he had suffered a heart attack just two days before they left home for that vacation. He converted this bad news into proof of his intestinal fortitude.
During his last years, Jim’s multiple sclerosis forced him to be confined to bed at home with occasional stays in hospitals and nursing homes.
I know how much Jim missed not being able to attend Westminster’s worship services and our Virtues and Values adult education class on Sunday mornings and to visit his grandsons in Boston and then Chicago.
Yet he did not complain or grumble about his plight. Jim accepted the limitations imposed by his disease with dignity and grace. He liked to tell us about the friendships he had made with his health care aides from Africa. There always was another language Jim wanted to learn.
Jim was still able to laugh and tell jokes. Some were even “off color.” He was a kind, gentle soul that we all will miss.
Danke schoen, mein Freund.