Orange Alert

SU mourns loss of beloved German scholar, teacher

Like idol Goethe, Gerlinde Sanford saw best in everyone

May 3, 2010, by Rob Enslin

Outside Gerlinde Ulm Sanford’s office in H.B. Crouse Hall is a small altar adorned with reminders of one of Syracuse University’s most beloved professors: a copy of Goethe’s “Faust,” photos and postcards, several origami balls, flowers, and dried fruit and leaves. Tucked inside one of the artifacts—a magazine about Weimar, Sanford’s second home—is a faded clipping about the 2004 fire that tore through the city’s Herzogin Anna Amalia Library, destroying more than 50,000 books. Friend and colleague Karl Solibakke suspects that the conflagration was not far from Sanford’s mind, even up until her death on Tuesday, April 27, at age 70.

“It’s been said that the library’s 300-year history also reflects Germany’s history,” explains Solibakke, a German literary scholar who doubles as assistant dean for finance and long-range planning in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Gerlinde knew every inch of that place because her idol, [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe, once worked there. Today, it is home to thousands of rare books, manuscripts, and incunabula—things that Gerlinde plied to her trade.”

Sanford was a scholar of long-standing repute who wrote several books on Goethe and his son, August; edited works on Baroque literature and culture; and published dozens of articles about other Austrian and German writers. She is arguably remembered for editing the extensive correspondence between Johann and August, in addition to publishing a dictionary of Viennese professional names and a concordance for Friedrich Schiller’s philosophical and esthetic writings. Her interest in linguistic studies, Goethe, and modern Austrian literature pervaded much of her work, recalls Solibakke, who served under Sanford as the Love Distinguished Research Fellow in German literature and culture.

“Gerlinde was a dedicated teacher who motivated her students to do their very best,” he recalls, with a trace of emotion. “She was highly respected by them and by the faculty.” Solibakke says that at the time of her death, Sanford was collecting and editing the writings of August, who, like his father, was a writer.

Karina von Tippelskirch, assistant professor of German in languages, literatures and linguistics (LLL), draws a comparison that would have made Sanford proud. “Following Goethe, she always looked for the best in everybody,” she says. “Gerlinde cared for the department, as a whole—for each program in it, for each faculty member, and for each student she taught and advised.”

Born in Austria, where she earned a Ph.D. in German at the University of Vienna, Sanford came to the United States in 1965 and taught briefly at Mississippi State University. Three years later, she relocated to SU and eventually rose to professor and chair of LLL in Arts and Sciences. Also, Sanford served as the German Program Coordinator and, for a time, directed SU Abroad programs in Vienna, Florence, and Strasbourg, a position that earned her SU’s Distinguished Service Award. Colleagues estimate that she taught no fewer than four dozen German courses at SU, advised nearly a thousand students, and served on more than 80 academic committees.

“The combination of extraordinary dedication to others and the huge amount of outstanding scholarly work made her truly exceptional,” adds Tippelskirch, calling Sanford the most “caring colleague” of her career. Erika Haber, associate professor of Russian, says that she misses Sanford profoundly. “Gerlinde was the kindest, most genuine person I’ve met at SU,” she explains. “She gave absolutely everything she had to her students, her colleagues, and her research, right up until the very end.”

Arts and Sciences Dean George Langford echoes these sentiments—describing Sanford as likeable but private, with a whiff of Teutonic solemnity. “Gerlinde was a disciplined worker who never complained once,” he says, adding that she enjoyed hiking, swimming, music, and reading. “I had planned to celebrate the end of her term as chair next week, but with her passing, have made the joint decision to hold a special memorial service in the fall.” Gerald Greenberg, The College’s senior associate dean and associate professor of Russian, has been tapped to serve as LLL’s interim chair until a permanent successor is named. 

Sanford is survived by her husband, William Sanford, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi; her sisters Helga Meiler (Germany), Edith Koestler (Austria), and Gertrude Hillebrand (Austria); her brother, Wolfgang Ulm (Austria); and three nieces.

“SU was her life, and Gerlinde didn’t relinquish her duties,” concludes Solibakke. “I’ve shed tears over her, but Gerlinde would not want us to be any less stalwart than she. That’s the kind of person she was.”

Media Contact

Rob Enslin