Möge er in Frieden ruhen.

I was saddened to hear that one of my former professors passed away this week. I took two years of undergraduate German from Professor Rudolf Thill (Herr Professor Thill). I can't remember much of my German these days, but I won't soon forget him. He had a wonderful, rich, softly-accented voice and a gentle laugh. Best of all, though, he always told us stories about his life. There were so many, but I always liked the one about the two train stations.

Professor Thill grew up in eastern Germany, not far from the Polish border. He had to ride a train to school each morning. Apparently the trains were run by the German military. The conductor, engineer, and station master all wore elaborate uniforms and saluted each other upon arrival and departure. Professor Thill told us how the train left every morning at the precise stroke of the station master's watch. The man would stare at his pocket watch counting the seconds before authorizing an alert engineer to steam out of the station at the correct time. It was all carefully-choreographed with barked orders, snapped salutes and Prussian heel clicks.

Later Professor Thill served in the Afrika Corps and was captured when Rommel's adventure in the desert fell apart. He and a friend found themselves surrounded on a beach and decided to swim for it. They took off their clothes and dove into the ocean. The American troops just sat in the sand watching these two naked German boys trying to swim out against an incoming tide. Eventually, they were exhausted and stumbled out of the ocean to collapse at the Americans' feet.

Professor Thill eventually came to America as a prisoner of war. He told us that he was on a prison train that had stopped at some sleepy rural station. The station master was seated on a wooden chair eating an apple and swatting flies. The engineer leaned out of the cab and said, "Okay?" The station master just waved his apple core at him and the train wheezed into motion. A 19-year old Professor Thill watched all this in amazement and thought "How the hell are we losing to these people?"

Later, of course, he became one of these people, coming to America after the war, working in hotels, earning his degrees and becoming a professor of German and history. He was a wonderful teacher and a lovely man. I shall always remember him.


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