By Stuart Friebert
In 1953, if you knocked on his door during office hours, he’d sweep you in with a huge wave, then grab his old alarm clock, something of a crazy antique, ask you how much time you could afford, set the alarm accordingly, and once you stammered out your question, proceed to surround it with so much information, buttressed by graphs, charts, tomes from the recesses of his library behind him, that your poor question almost cried for help.
But how fortunate we were, graduate students in German in Madison at UW, to come under, as well as before, one could say, his tutelage, which often morphed into a spell. Phonetics and Middle & Old High German were my tunnels into his inner kingdom. His throne was an oversized armchair he’d not sit in for long in the dusky classroom in Bascom Hall, because he’d leap up again and again, now to the blackboard to chalk an enormous sagittal section of a human head, now to slide on his knees to a stop right before anyone who’d not yet learned not to sit in the front row. At the board, he’d X spots within the head’s mouth’s cavity to indicate where this or that sound emanated from, punctuated – we eventually learned to take more careful notes when he did – by slowly intoned remarks; i.e. “German is far less guttural than English! Take the word ‘ball,’ which you all say way back here” – another, smaller X chalked at the end of the tongue – “while every German spits it out from the tongue’s tip” – a slightly larger X chalked right behind the lips.
Down on his knees beside the “volunteer” in the front row, he’d tilt her head, gently pry open her mouth, then ask her to demonstrate both pronunciations, often followed by an “observation,” he liked to call it, that even from her single pronunciation of “ball” he could tell where she grew up as a child, as well as where she subsequently moved to, i.e. was exposed to different manners of pronunciation “she couldn’t help but be influenced by!” Who could ever forget his typical exam queries: “Speaker said ‘butter cup,’ listener heard ‘butter up’: EXPLAIN, and accompany if necessary with skillful illustrations.” Or, a favorite, which I’ve often leaned on in my teaching: “Wolfram von Eschenbach’s EYE & EAR!”
Thanks to Prof. Joos’ offhand suggestion, that graduate students develop a beginning German program for grade-schoolers, to be taught summers, two women and I submitted a curriculum-plan that was approved. So there we were that next summer, under the supervision of Joos, signing up some twenty children, among them his own daughter. Talk about upping the ante! Our fright at first never quite dissipating, we somehow managed to earn generally good marks from him about how we handled matters. At the party celebrating the course’s first summer, my fellow instructors overheard Joos saying to a visiting colleague, whose son was interested in enrolling the next time around, “Young Friebert, whose German is not at all contemptible, will likely continue instructing next summer, and inasmuch as his fellows are graduating, we’ll find substitutes.” I’ve long worn that appraisal as a badge of honor…
Although of course we students were quite curious about the histories of our professors, without Google and today’s resources we rarely found out “stuff” to pass around. There were the inevitable rumors, especially about Joos. It was widely known he’d served as a cryptologist during WW II, and was said to have helped crack a Japanese code at some point. The War Department awarded him a Distinguished Service Citation for having helped develop “communication systems.” At one point he let slip that he studied engineering “when I was your age.” He did have some sort of machine in his office that I think he called a “sound-spectograph,” into which he’d occasionally ask you to say a simple word like “yes,” then fiddle with the dials and print out a graph of your “signature shape.” He’d tear it off the roll and give it to you. I wish I’d had the good sense to have saved it, not to mention have him autograph it as well…
You knew you’d made it to graduate-school heaven if he ever invited you to play chess with him in his office, which he did one late afternoon when we’d finished grading exams of the beginning German courses we TAs taught, alongside some senior faculty, who liked to teach rank beginners now and then. Winking he was fresh out of rum to “spot it,” he made me a cup of tea in a mug he must never have washed, because its insides were dark brown, held out both hands, a pawn concealed in each, and said “Choose you color.” Out came black, he pushed the queen’s pawn two spaces and yawned, as he usually did after every class, come to think. All else I now recall, some sixty-five years later, is it only took him just twenty or so moves to whisper “Schachmatt, junger Mann.”