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Life Story / Obituary
Dr. Diether Hans Haenicke’s life was distinguished by his perseverance, wit, and integrity, all of which served to inspire his family, astound his friends, and confound his adversaries. A German immigrant from the “old school” of academia, Diether amazingly mixed his erudite credentials with an open and young curiosity that led him to be an advocate for the students he taught and mentored, and a leader to the colleagues he worked alongside.
Born on May 19, 1935 in Hagen, Germany, Diether was the sixth of eight children born to Erwin and Helene Haenicke. He was raised and grew up near the Werra river in Witzenhausen, a small town which bordered communist East Germany until the German reunification. It was here that Diether faced as a child the grim realities of fascism and the second world war.
While the evils of Nazism pervaded the nation and reached into his idyllic small town, Diether found solace in books and music. Not surprisingly, his intellectual parents had similar interests. His father would often play portions of records for Diether and his siblings, and demand that they name the composer, the symphony, and its movement before dinner would be served.
As the war ended, and poverty and despair loomed over Germany, Diether continued to immerse himself in his studies. Having attended the Volksschule (primary school) and the Mittelschule (secondary school), Diether went on to the Gymnasium, or high school, in nearby Bad Sooden-Allendorf. Diether loved school and would often tell his children that he looked forward to classes, exams, and even homework.
Following the completion of his required courses, Diether entered his higher education studies at the Universities of Goettingen, Marburg, and Munich. He focused on literature, psychology, and history and went on to earn his Doctorate from the University of Munich where he graduated magna cum laude in 1962.
It was in that year that Diether married a young American student named Carol Colditz, to whom he was married for 46 years, and with whom he spent his very last moments. Their life together was spent in universities, with eccentric friends, lively parties, and unforgettable laughter. Carol and Diether had two children, Jennifer and Kurt, who enjoyed and benefited from the experience of being raised in a household that was anything but all-American. Nevertheless, Diether officially became a U.S. citizen in 1972, and was deeply patriotic towards the country he considered to be the greatest in the world. In fact, Diether was known for his arguments with Europeans who derided America. It was never a good idea to tell him that his adopted country “had no culture.”
Diether’s career in U.S. academia began in earnest when he accepted a position teaching German language and literature at Wayne State University’s Junior Year in Munich program. Although he had always imagined that he would spend his life as a professor, it soon became evident that Diether had both the acumen and desire to move into higher education administration.
In 1972, he became Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Wayne State University. He then went on to the position of Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs in 1975. In 1978, he made a move away from the urban university that had been his training ground, and went to the Ohio State University, the largest land grant university in the nation. There he became Dean of Humanities and Professor of German. Within a few years he was appointed Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Poised to move on to a major university presidency, Diether became interested in a job opening in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Many colleagues advised him to look elsewhere, but Diether clearly fell in love with Western Michigan University from his first visit there. It was a place, as he said, that he “could get his hands around.” Diether accepted the position of WMU president in 1985, and spent the rest of his career there despite offers and inquiries from some of the nation’s biggest and most famous institutions. Diether adopted WMU much in the fashion he had adopted America—with fierce pride and loyalty. Never afraid of a confrontation, he fought to bring his university to a higher level of prominence in areas such as research, student quality, and fundraising. Upon his retirement from the presidency in 1998, he was credited by many as transforming the university.
Diether returned to the faculty and taught for several years. It was during this time that he was able to enjoy his “first love” of teaching students. He also began to write a popular weekly column in the Kalamazoo Gazette. He remained active at the university, but always missed his days leading his beloved institution. In 2006, Diether was asked again to step in to lead the university during a critical time. Enrollment was sinking. Morale was dreadful. Students were dissatisfied and Diether was needed to revive the university while a new, longterm leader was selected.
Diether came back as though he had never left. He was, as one colleague put it “a guardian angel,” who preserved the university till Dr. John Dunn, the next president arrived. Diether raised morale, reconnected with students, and gave everyone with a vested interest in WMU renewed confidence. When John Dunn took over in 2007, Diether knew the university was in good hands again.
Throughout his career and life, Diether defied many odds. He survived war and a totalitarian government, he assimilated into a foreign culture, and he had a terrible and long battle with heart disease. As Diether worked tirelessly, his heart worked against him, and he suffered through surgeries, procedures, and endless health worries. Doctors were often astounded at his uncanny ability to recover and survive. Again and again, Diether persevered. But a head injury incurred during cardiac arrest in December ultimately proved too much for him to overcome. Even as he is missed by his family, there is great relief in knowing that Diether will never again have to endure pain, anxiety, or worry. May he rest, truly, in peace.
Dr. Diether Haenicke, age 73, died on Sunday, February 15, 2009 in Kalamazoo. Services will be held at 2:30 PM on Thursday, February 26, 2009 at Miller Auditorium followed by a reception at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts. Diether was preceded in death by his parents; four siblings: Gerhard Haenicke, Helmut Haenicke, Annemarie Ambronn, and Liselotte Killmer. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Carol Haenicke; two children: Jennifer (Chris) Haenicke of Kalamazoo and Kurt (Stephenie) Haenicke of Lisle, IL; four grandchildren: Stefanie, Caroline, Hans, and Til; three siblings: Dorothea Motekat, Helga (Rudi) Silter, and Hartmut (Karin) Haenicke, all of Germany; and many nieces and nephews. Please visit Diether’s personal web page at www.lifestorynet.com where you can read his Life Story, archive a memory or photo, and sign his online guest book before coming to his services. Memorial contributions may be made to Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, or the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Arrangements by Life Story Funeral Home, Betzler-Kalamazoo; 6080 Stadium Drive, 375-2900.
Written by Kurt Haenicke