Bodo Nischan (1939-2001)

Delivered at the SRR Plenary Session:
"Grand Theories of the Later Sixteenth Century:
A Panel in Memory of Bodo Nischan"
Sixteenth Century Society Conference
San Antonio, Texas
October 26, 2002

Robin B. Barnes
 



Just over one year ago, on October 21, 2001, we lost our friend and colleague Bodo Nischan. A man who evoked unusual fondness and respect from virtually everyone who knew him, Bodo succumbed to a brain tumor after an intense struggle lasting only six months. He was sixty-two years old.


The Society for Reformation Research, one of several scholarly organizations of which he was a long-time and active member, dedicates this plenary session to his memory. Our hope has been to design a session of just that sort to which Bodo himself would have been drawn, and in which he would have actively participated. Bodo would have objected strenuously, I think, to the idea of being held up as a model scholar, or as a model person in any respect; he had a healthy aversion to conceptions of sainthood, whether scholarly or of any other sort. But surely we can help to celebrate his life and his contributions by pursuing the sort of friendly and open intellectual exchange he loved, and by discussing some of the historical matters he thought were important.


Most of us donít need to be reminded of Bodoís scholarly record. In addition to his highly regarded, indeed landmark book of 1994, Prince, People and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg, he produced an impressive series of important articles over the years, each of which showed painstaking and inspiring work in largely unknown historical territory. When much of this work was collected and issued in a 1999 volume that Bodo titled Lutherans and Calvinists in the Age on Confessionalism, I was personally taken aback to learn that I had known about and read only about half of all the fine pieces that Bodo had published in various scholarly journals. And he continued to be even more productive than many of us realized.


We knew from his additional conference presentations since the mid-1990ís that he was engaged in further pioneering studies on the subject of ritual and the confessionalization process in Germany. In fact, at the time of his death he had completed four chapters of his projected work on this topic, a study to which everyone who followed the broadening discussion on early modern confessionalization was looking forward eagerly. Fortunately, plans are in the works for these chapters to be published in book form. Moreover, at least two major papers that Bodo delivered in Europe will soon be available in conference volumes. All this scholarship will have an ongoing influence. As a formal memorial to the man and his work, a volume of essays on the broad theme of confessionalization will be published by Ashgate, with support from East Carolina University, under the editorship of two of Bodoís long-time North Carolina colleagues and friends, John Headley and Hans Hillerbrand.


Professor Bodo Nischan had a key role in helping East Carolina University grow into the fine institution it is today. He was a truly beloved teacher and thoroughly respected, honored colleague. Among countless students and associates, sadness over this loss has recently been accompanied by warm nods of approval, as Bodo has been named posthumously by the ECU College of Arts and Sciences as the 2002 Distinguished Professor of History. In addition, and equally appropriately, a new manuscript endowment has been named for him at the Joyner Library of ECU. Meanwhile, his colleagues in The Society for Reformation Research have, as you know, just bestowed the first Bodo Nischan Award for Scholarship, Civility, and Service; this honor has fallen on Charles Nauert. The name of the award reflects the deep gratitude of many colleagues who worked with Bodo, learned from him, and came to value their association with him ever more highly over the years.


Those of us who knew Bodo through his regular and lively participation in programs like the one for which we gather this evening were familiar with his great personal warmth, charm, and sensitivity. I suppose some who encountered him for the first time might have been just a bit intimidated by this tall, energetic figure, with his striking professorial visage, his deep voice, his rapid-fire speech and residual German accent. But his ready smile quickly revealed this manís generous nature, and one needed to spend only a few minutes with Bodo to discover his modesty, his sense of humor, his caring and supportive character. And the longer one knew him, the more deeply one sensed his thoroughgoing honesty, integrity, and loyalty.


At meetings like this one, who among his colleagues, friends, and acquaintances didnít smile inwardly to spot Bodo, striding hurriedly through the halls or engaged in animated conversation, as often as possible accompanied by his beautiful, elegant, and charming wife Gerda, his companion for life? It was worth crossing a continent just to have dinner with that pair, so full of life and love, such great and loyal friends. How often did Bodo send a knot of us into fits of laughter with self-deprecating stories about his German relatives, or about life in eastern North Carolina, or about some incredible misadventure in their travels? During a conference in the old DDR, I had the memorable privilege of seeing at least one such story unfold as it happened. Because of Bodoís many German connections, the regime had assigned some goons to trail him. I watched as he playfully confused those sour, hapless characters, forcing them into antics worthy of the Keystone Cops. He had me literally doubled over.


To my knowledge, Bodo never had a personal enemy. Like all of us he experienced some scholarly and professional disagreements, but Bodo was the very last person to let sores fester, or to allow his outlook to be soured. Itís no wonder at all that he developed such close friendshipsósuch as those that continued from his youth and his days as a student at Yale, Lutheran Theological Seminary, and Penn, and later wonderful networks in Greenville, throughout the U.S. and Canada, at Wolfenbeuttel, Berlin, and elsewhere in Germany, not to mention in other parts of Europe and scattered yet farther. Whether as fellow scholars, or as friends, or both, people were quite simply proud to know him. And the love of his family always glowed in him.


These thoughts, filled though they are with fondness and gratitude, would remain incomplete if I failed to mention that Bodo Nischan was a man of abiding and expansive faith. Alert during most of his final illness, he died in heartfelt gratitude for the gift of life, and for the blessings he knew in his marriage to Gerda, through his son Michael, through his larger family, and through his friends, students, and colleagues. He would certainly be far less concerned about the way we memorialize him than about our hearing, both here and now and as we carry on henceforth with our lives, that infinitely larger message of affirmation and hope by which his own days were graced.