The English Department Mourns Professor Albert J. Kuhn

March 28, 2012

The OSU English Department is saddened  to announce the passing of our colleague, and former Chair, Emeritus Professor Albert J. Kuhn, who died Monday, March 26, 2012 at OSU Medical Center. In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate contributions to the Libraries of The Ohio State University (c/o The Ohio State University Foundation, 1480 West Lane Avenue, Columbus, OH 43221).Colleagues shared the following memories of Professor Kuhn, his scholarship, collegial spirit and importance to the English Department:

Professor Emeritus Murray Beja

I was sorry to hear of the death of Al Kuhn, a fine colleague and mentor, and an extraordinary citizen of the University. l held key administrative posts in very troubled times for the academic world. He was Chair of the Department in the mid to late 60s and into the early 70s—including the Spring of 1970, when the entire University shut down after the Kent State shootings. His understanding leadership at that time was inspiring. As a sign of the respect and admiration of the entire campus, he went from being Chair directly to the office of the Provost in 1971, with no administrative posts between. In that role too he was outspoken yet diplomatic, both courageous and judicious.

He subsequently headed the Honors program in the late 80s, and of course, Kuhn Honors House is named after him.

I’d like also to mention his late wife Roberta, a very talented artist and a gallery owner in the newly burgeoning Short North. She designed evocative and effective logos and other material for the Samuel Beckett Symposium held here in 1981.

A personal note. Bob Estrich hired me, but it was Al who nurtured me in my early years: he saw me through tenure, and then through promotion to full professor.  And of course he was a model during my own years as Chair.

Dr. Kelly Anspaugh (Lecturer in English at OSU Lima)

I recall  when I was working on my master’s thesis (on literary allusion in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) going to Al in his office with a question about Cowper’s “The Castaway.”  Can’t remember now exactly what my question was, but Al’s response was memorable:  He opened an anthology to the poem,  gave me a very dramatic reading of it, closed the book firmly, and wished me a good day.   A fellow student had the same experience.  Perhaps this was Al’s way of letting us know our questions were a bit pedantic?  

Professor Emeritus Julian Markels

The history of our department and university would likely be a lot sorrier if it were not for Al Kuhn. His role in establishing Women's Studies might not have been taken if not for his previous experience as chair of our obstreperous department. He was old-school Johns Hopkins, very old school, and he became chair in the immediate aftermath of the mid-60s mass exodus of English department faculty to the bi-coastal new campuses of the California and SUNY systems. Our department had been on the verge of establishing a national presence after a decade of brilliant hiring by Robert Estrich, and now Al was faced with picking up the pieces just when a new generation of  Ph.D.'s with shoulder length hair and anti-Vietnam fervor were by far the most impressive candidates out there. Among them was one in his own field with a Hopkins Ph.D but an extracurricular presence that repelled him, and he hired W.J.T. Mitchell without a blink because of his respect for Tom's scholarship. Then during the 1970 student strike over which the department became factionalized, Al presided over our raucous meetings with amazing grace. His patience and discrimination made those meetings both productive and healing, and I've always thought that his best work as provost reflected the education he'd got right here among us.

Professor Emeritus David Frantz

I started as an Assistant Professor at Ohio State in the autumn of 1968 along with Chris Zacher, Dan Barnes, Tom Mitchell, and Jewel Vroonland.  Al Kuhn was the chair who hired all of us. As Julian noted, Tom eventually left to go the U of Chicago, Jewell at some point dropped out of academia, and three of us made our entire academic careers here. Al (and as Murray Beja has noted, his wife Roberta) were wonderful at welcoming all of us into the department and life in Columbus. I can still remember eating supper at their house during my recruitment late in 1967. As Julian has noted, Al presided over the department during incredibly tumultous times, and he later led the academic side of the University during equally difficult times. One reason he did this so well had to do with the core values that he held to and promoted throughout his time as an administrator. I believe it was during his watch as Provost that OSU introduced its first practice plan in the medical center.  Al took a lot of heat for that, but it was the right move, and he stood up to many powerful adversaries through that period. Al befriended many on campus, from Woody Hayes to the campus ministers.  After he left the position of Provost, as has been noted, he became head of the University Honors Center, a role he cherished for ir brought him back to interacting with students about matters intellectual that so engaged him.  Al was a serious, often very private man, but he also loved to have a good time and knew how to liven up a party.  When Roberta opened her gallery in the Short North (when it was just beginning to be what it is today), Al was a proud and supportive spouse, as he was a proud and supportive father to his two sons.  

Professor Emeritus Marlene Longenecker

I did not know Al when he was Chair.  That was (just) before my time.  But I do want to mention something that no one else will remember him for.  He was Provost when we were first forming Women's Studies on campus (this would be 1972-73).  We had plenty of struggles with the administration as you can all imagine--this new, "strident" (we were all "strident," the minute we opened our mouths)  (non) discipline that wanted community involvement (for heaven's sake) and women doctors over at student health (for heaven's sake) and workshops on rape prevention (what did this have to do with academic study? we were asked, over and over again), not to mention actual classes and books on the subject (of women, for heaven's sake). At one point, having read in MS. Magazine that we should not smile at administrators when negotiating with them because it just reified feminine stereotypes, a number of the founders (this meeting did not include me, to my great regret) went to see Al with paper bags over their heads and kept them on the whole hour they were there. They didn't trust themselves not to smile.  And yet, he talked to us.  He did.  A lot. (Would we even get in the door at Bricker Hall today?)  And finally, he said, in effect: All right.  If we are going to do it, let's do it right.  And he then set up the Office of Women's Studies with a bunch of money and a lot of (mostly graduate student) staff and plenty of printing and other resources and let us do it.  That initial infusion of relatively big money (of course it was nothing compared to any other department on campus but to us it was a fortune) became the basis for what was absolutely acknowledged to be the best Women's Studies program in the country well into this century and as far as I know, it still is.  When I took over in 1980 as Director (by then we were in the College of Humanities) and went to the National Women's Studies Association meetings and gave my fellow chairs and directors updates on our program, they were just in awe. For years, we had more administrative support and more money than any program in the country, including those at much richer universities.  So for this, Al Kuhn deserves to be remembered.   He was never a feminist and he did not come to this decision easily, but when he did, he "did it right," that has made all the difference. 

Professor Kay Halasek

I came to know Al only in 2001 when he stepped forward and mentored me in my one year directing the University Honors program.  He supported, advised, and challenged me in ways for which I'll always be grateful.  In about 2006, I became aware of the transcript of an interview with Al that's located in the University Archives Knowledge Bank as part of the OSU Oral History Project. You can download the pdf from that site, which also includes a lengthy abstract of the 69-page transcript.  Here's a bit from the beginning of the 2005 abstract:

Dr. Albert Kuhn was a long-time faculty member and administrator. He recounts his rural upbringing and undergraduate education at the University of Illinois, earning the Ph.D in English Literature at Johns Hopkins, and his military service. He gives much credit to the G.I. Bill of Rights, which in the post-war era subsidized most of the male students, including him. Most male students then were older, uninterested in fraternities and football games, and anxious to excel and contribute. Kuhn joined the O.S.U. English Department as an instructor at $4,000 a year in 1954.  In that era no one said, “Have you gone through all the affirmative action processes here? Did any females compete for that position?” His scholarly interests centered on the history of ideas, a broad pursuit that made him equally interested in theology, mythology, and intellectual history, politics and how these impacted on literature. In particular he focused on the writings of William Blake and Percy Shelley.


Dr. Albert J. Kuhn was born on April 4, 1926 in Dowell, Illinois. He was a veteran  of the  U.S. Navy, serving  in World War II.  He received his BA from The University Of Illinois and his PhD from The Johns Hopkins University. He joined the faculty at The Ohio State University in 1954, and subsequently he was Chair of the English Department from 1964-1971, Vice President for Academic Affairs & Provost  from  1971-1979,  Director of University Honors, 1985-1989. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 1989. The Albert J. Kuhn Honors & Scholars House was named in his honor.

The date of a memorial service in early May will be announced. "We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind."  Arrangements by Southwick-Good & Fortkamp.  

Photo: The Lantern,  June 29, 1979