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Alfred 
Meyer
 "Teacher"

Alfred G. Meyer
The Michigan Alumnus 24

by Bert Hornback


Al's students would sometimes jokingly
 say that the big block "M" on the Diag
 stood for Meyer.


Alfred Meyer, professor emeritus
 of political science and the for
mer director of the Center for
 Russian and East European
 Studies, died of heart failure on
 April 22. One of the UM's 
most popular and beloved pro
fessors, Meyer had taught at the
 University from 1966 until his 
retirement in 1990. He had 
recently completed a SHOAH 
interview for Steven Spielberg's
 visual Holocaust Museum pro
ject and his son, Stefan Meyer, is
 currently editing his father’s
 memoirs.


The first time I saw Al Meyer was in 1967, at 
an antiwar rally on the Diag. He was wearing 
a World War II vintage U.S. Army uniform. Years 
later, when Al gave me an autobiographical piece 
he had written for a German magazine, I found 
out about that uniform. And by then, I knew Al
 well enough to understand the manuscript he had
 given me.


Al had translated the manuscript into English,
 and asked me to read it: "You read David Copper
field," he said. "See if this little scrap of autobiog
raphy is worth anything." It told about his par
ents' attempt—I think it was in 1937— to get out of
 Nazi Germany. The ship they were on had left the pier 
in Hamburg, but was turned back, commandeered by 
the German military. Later that year, they were visited 
by one of his father's friends from Amsterdam; when this
 friend left, he took Al's father's gold watch with him. "I
 might need this," he said.


A year later, when young Alfred was smuggled out
 from his hometown of Bielefeld to Amsterdam, his 
father's friend sold the watch to buy Al's passage to the 
United States.


Al’s parents were gassed by the Nazis. And in 1941,
 when the United States declared war on Germany, Al
en listed in the U.S. Army.


I won't try to recapitulate the rest of what Al gave me 
to read. If 1 do, I'll get the facts wrong. But it was a mov
ing piece which told the story of Al's involvement in the 
war, of his entering Bielefeld as part of the liberating 
U.S. Army, and his one painful return to that city many
 years later.


But most important, it tells the story of Al Meyer, the 
teacher. That's what this little fragment of biography is 
really about.


Al was always teaching. Every conversation I ever had
 with him was a pedagogical undertaking. And anytime I
 saw him with students, he was teaching. "Tell me, pro
fessor," he would say, his brilliant blue eyes sparkling 
like sapphires behind his silver rimmed glasses, and we 
were off.


When he taught the honors discussion section of the 
introductory political theory course, you would see the 
students swirling around him twenty minutes after the
 class was over, still arguing—still thinking—as he tried 
to make his way from the Modern Languages Building 
back to Haven Hall.


In 1986, he was honored as "Best Professor," at the 
U-M in Lisa Birnbach's College Book, and he deserved 
that honor, probably every year he taught in Ann Arbor.
 Al's students would sometimes jokingly say that the big 
block "M" on the Diag stood for Meyer. But it wasn't a
 joke; for many of us, that's what it meant and will continue to mean.


One day in 1988, I was sitting in my cubbyhole in the
 Honors Office talking to a student when Al came in and 
stood outside the door, pointing to his "Jesse Jackson for
 President" button. I adjusted my lapel so he could see
 mine. My student turned, saw Al's badge, and then said
 to me, "I understand. But I can't vote for him. I'm a Jew 
and he has said . . ."


Al leaned over the young man's chair, his head mostly 
upside down, and looked him in the eyes. "My parents
 were murdered at Auschwitz," he said, "and I'm voting 
for Jesse Jackson." He left me to work through that with
 my student, but he came back later in the afternoon to
 make sure the student had understood what he meant. I
 assured Al, "Yes, the student had understood." "Good," 
he said. "I trust you then had a serious argument?"


Al was brought to the University of Michigan in 1966 
because he was already a leading authority on communism. He had published four major books in the ten
 years before he came to Ann Arbor: Marxism: The Unity 
of 'Theory and Practice (1954); Leninism (1957); Commu
nism (1960); and The Soviet Political System (1965). But
 what he enjoyed most was teaching undergraduates, and 
that's what he devoted himself to at the University. His
 department tried to cure him of this distraction, but he
 was incurable.


And when he retired in 1990, the Political Science
 Department held a very odd party for him. There were 
five speakers, as I remember it: an undergraduate, me, a
 junior colleague of Al's, his chairman, and the person 
who had hired him in 1966. The first three of us talked 
about Al the teacher, troublemaker, sage, and friend. His
 senior colleagues, however, talked about his scholarly 
accomplishments, and then pretended to tease him about
 his dedication to teaching. It was clear, of course, that
 they weren't teasing, and Al wasn't going to let their criticism pass. He was the final speaker. He spoke very 
briefly.


"For more than twenty years, they have been trying to 
convert me to their way of life. They have failed. I have
 always been a teacher, and I shall always be a teacher."


For six years during the 1980s a group of students and
 faculty met at my home every Monday night to argue.
 We called ourselves the Society of Bremen Scholars. We 
assembled at eight o'clock, drank wine and cider and ate 
good cheeses until eight thirty, then squeezed ourselves 
into my living room for a half-hour's presentation by
 somebody. Peter Smith from chemistry introduced us to
 Welsh poetry. A student pianist undertook to explain
 "What Makes Mozart Mozart." The pursuit of happiness; prisoners' rights; why military research shouldn't be 
banned on campus; appropriate technology for the Third
 World; civil disobedience; the role of the conductor;
 nuclear policy; poverty. At nine whoever was presenting 
the argument stopped, and for the next hour we all
 argued. At ten sharp we rose, refreshed ourselves, and 
continued our discussion. The last ones out at midnight
 helped me clean up.


Al was in everything, a man of principle.
 And always a man of virtue and of courage.


Al Meyer was, of course, a charter member of the Soci
ety of Bremen Scholars. One week he made us all read, in 
advance, an essay by a political science professor at
 Wellesley called "In Defense of Joseph Stalin." As I 
remember that evening, what he made us do, finally, was
 consider whether or not "expediency" could ever be 
invoked as a principle or called a virtue.


Al was in everything, a man of principle. And always a 
man of virtue and of courage. I remember his appearance 
in 1210 Angell Hall the morning after his and Eva's 
house had burned. He had an introductory political the
ory class at nine o'clock, and had borrowed clothes from a neighbor to come to class. The clothes swallowed him;
 the suit coat hung to Al's knees, and the shirt was an inch 
too big around the neck. He didn't have his briefcase,
 and he didn't have any books. He and Eva had lost
 everything except their lives in the fire. But he was on
 campus, ready to teach. And he was early enough that he
 had ten minutes to tell me, well, to ask me questions 
about, what he was teaching that morning.


If there is a heaven, Al will have all the angels in semi
nars by now. And before long he will have taught God 
how to accommodate and respect civil disobedience. And 
maybe he will persuade God to let him come back down 
here occasionally as a visiting professor.


-Bert Hernback, U-M professor emeritus of English, currently 
teaches at Bellarmine College in Kentucky. He has contributed a 
number of articles to Michigan Alumnus.