UC Berkeley News


Blake Spahr

29 November 2006

Blake Lee Spahr, an emeritus professor of German who was an internationally known scholar and editor of German Baroque and comparative Arthurian literature, died on Sept. 29 in a Walnut Creek nursing home at the age of 82.

Spahr joined the German department faculty in 1955 to teach 17th-century literature. He chaired that department and the Department of Comparative Literature during the 1960s and helped institute the campus's Dutch language and literature program.

Having taught himself Welsh, Spahr offered courses on that language and strongly supported the founding of the Celtic Studies Program. He also directed the California Study Center of the UC Education Abroad Program at Göttingen from 1974-76.

Johan Snapper, an emeritus professor of German and longtime friend of Spahr's, recalled that Spahr built a strong interdisciplinary program in Dutch Studies, establishing the Queen Beatrix Chair in Dutch and the Peter Paul Rubens Visiting Chair in Flemish.

Joseph Duggan, a professor of comparative literature and associate dean of the Graduate Division, called Spahr "an energetic and forceful presence" in the Department of Comparative Literature. "He was a fine teacher and a scholar of great distinction and was extremely knowledgeable, especially in the areas of German, French, and Celtic literatures."

Early dreams of academic distinction

Born in Carlisle, Penn., to a father of Irish descent and mother of German descent, Spahr developed an interest in German that his widow, Herlinde Baekelmans Spahr, said likely began with his fondness for a children's book, Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle, set in medieval Germany and read often to him in his youth. When just a boy, Spahr traded his pocket knife for a German grammar text and began to teach himself German, she said, and in third grade he planned to become a professor of German and chair of the German department at Princeton University.

While Spahr was still in junior high, a professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle let him audit a college course in advanced German. When he was a senior in high school, Spahr was admitted to Dickinson as part of a program for gifted students.

With the outbreak of World War II, Spahr joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and became navigator of a B-17 bomber. He flew 35 combat missions over Germany between mid-August 1944 and the end of that year, earning the rank of a decorated first lieutenant. After completing his 35 missions, the Air Corps learned that Spahr spoke German and French, sent him to Paris as a translator.

An American in the archives

After the war ended, Spahr earned a B.A. in German at Dickinson College and later attended Yale University, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in German literature with a focus on 17th-century Baroque literature. As a postdoctoral student, Spahr spent a year in Nuremberg when the city was still devastated by the effects of the war. There he gained access to the archives of the Pegnesischer Blumenorden, a literary society, founded in 1644, that was devoted to Baroque literature. He became its only American member. His first book was The Archives of the Pegnesischer Blumenorden: A Survey and Reference Guide (1960).

In 1992, Spahr received the UC Berkeley Citation, the campus's highest honor for faculty. The following year he retired from Berkeley but maintained his interest in the arts as an exacting editor, enthusiastic reader, and theater-goer. He spent 40 years playing in the Oakland Community Orchestra, starting out with the flute and moving on to the French horn. Among friends visiting Spahr in his final days, one performed a violin recital in his hospital room and another read him a Middle High German poem.

Spahr, who received an honorary doctorate in 2000 from Dickinson College, is survived by his wife, Herlinde Spahr, of Orinda, and a stepdaughter, Amelia Schaller, of Zürich.

- Kathleen Maclay