A Fond Farewell to Prof. Peter Heinegg

After forty one years, Peter Heinegg has just taught his last term at Union. He is retiring. His students and coworkers will sorely miss him. Here are some parting comments from his friends and colleagues.

From Jim McCord:

Peter is like no one else I’ve ever known, his knowledge vast
and deep as seas, his energy and crankiness heavenly delights.

From Harry Marten:

Peter and Rosie came to Union in Sept 1976, the same year that Ginit and I came to Schenectady.   Basically, I’ve known them most of my adult life. Our children grew up together.  And, really, we grew up together too. That sharing of experiences with Peter and Rosie has been one of the great pleasures of every stage of my working life.
I’ve known many interesting, well educated, talented people. But I’ve never met anyone like Peter. He  knows more about western culture and literature than anyone I’ve ever worked with. While most academics research and teach in a fairly specific area, Peter is a polymath.  He knows more languages fluently, has read more widely, understands the major ideas of our civilization more intelligently than anyone has a right to.  A past winner of Union’s Stillman Prize in recognition of “a teacher who can make a classroom a place which combines excitement, joy, and challenge,” Peter’s teaching life was  focused for years on the greatest of our works of literature. Teaching the department’s Humanities I, II, III courses  and the Bible as Literature — great books classes in the Columbia / Chicago tradition —  Peter regularly filled the largest classrooms available to standing room only capacity, engaging  many hundreds of students at a time. He  was the best lecturer imaginable – smart, coherent, funny, acerbic, impassioned, astonishingly knowledgeable, persuasive – and students loved him.
Peter’s scholarship was equally astonishing.  In my years as dept. Chair, I had the responsibility to do annual merit evaluations — that is, to gather up and read through each colleague’s scholarly work for the past year. Mostly that meant reading a few articles for each member of the department. But Peter would regularly bring me (literally) dozens of articles and reviews each year, and not infrequently a new book or a translation – from German, from Russian, from Spanish, from French, from Greek.  And the written work, mounting up in high stacks, had the same qualities as the teaching. I was knocked over, given to whining to Ginit about how the hell I was supposed to get through all of what  Peter had written in a year. But I’d invariably forget my frustration with my prolific friend as I lost myself in the sharpness of his arguments, the grace of his prose, the energy of his insights.
It’s worth noting that as a colleague Peter regularly helped the department by teaching heavy overloads, never shirked committee work, however onerous or tedious,  and, despite some vocal impatience with college bureaucracy and politics, and occasional cantankerousness about changing trends in the academy as they affected thinking at the college, he  never failed to support junior colleagues when it mattered most – in third year and tenure performance reviews.
All of that matters in remembering Peter. But none of it means as much as the fact that he and Rosie are both unusually kind and generous people, sharing their time with students and friends, and their home with visiting faculty, international students, colleagues  in need of temporary living space. Both are outspoken and direct, but both have the gift of friendship.

Enjoying my own retirement, I often asked Peter when he was going to retire. His answer was always the same – ask Rosie. And I would — with nothing but more question marks, until this year. Thanks, Rosie, for giving Peter the go ahead. I think he’ll enjoy it. No, make that I think you’ll enjoy it together.

From Anastasia Pease:

I have known Peter for the last eleven years, and have many good memories of him. I’ve sat in on his classes and enjoyed his passionate, riveting, full-throated teaching.  He has amazing energy, which spills over into all of his scholarly activities. I have read some of his many books and translations, and they are marvelous. I’ve used his translation of Tolstoy’s autobiography in my own classes, and have shared his rendition of Primo Levi’s Is This a Human Being? (Peter’s title) with the students in my Holocaust History mini-term to Eastern Europe. As a colleague, Peter has been gracious and generous with his time and advice.  But besides his genius, his erudition, his kindness, and his famous crankiness, what I’ll remember is his sense of humor. He can deliver better than a stand up comic! Frankly, I cannot imagine Peter in retirement. No doubt he’ll go on reading, writing, translating, publishing, and teaching. Being a public intellectual is in his blood — that’s who he is. He will never retire from being himself.


Skip to toolbar