An Ode to Kent State’s Original Bad Ass: Olaf Prufer

I wrote this several years ago after hearing about the death of a beloved professor of mine in 2008. I think everyone must have a favorite teacher in their life – it doesn’t matter what age they come along. I’ve been fortunate to have several in my life but the most colorful was Dr. Olaf Prufer. He was a little mean, a lot scary and simply  brilliant. I don’t think I appreciated his influence half as much as I should have at the time. 

This isn’t fiction but it definitely illustrates a profound influence on me and the fiction I write. 

Even before his death in 2008, Dr. Olaf Prufer was a legend at Kent State. Certainly, anyone lucky enough to have taken one of his anthro courses has at least one “Prufer Story” to tell to the freshman coming in. “He screamed at me in class!” “He was a nazi!” “He has a cat named fuckknuckles!” And yes, all of those things were true. Sort of – his father was one of Hitler’s ambassadors when Prufer was young – he himself was not a nazi. I had twelve classes with Dr. Prufer while at Kent State and I have no shortage of Prufer stories. I am saddened to hear of his passing because I know that every Prufer Story is now a thing of history – just one more anecdote detailing a larger legend that will be passed around Lowry Hall. 

He hated Intro classes and freshman, as a principle. He delighted in scaring them. While most other Intro to Anthropology or Archaeology profs would walk that fine line between evolution and creationism, Dr. Prufer busted over the line and told everyone standing on the wrong side of it to fuck off. His vocabulary was huge but he delighted in using the harshest of the four letter variety, especially amongst those that were easily intimidated. 

He had a thick white beard and a deeply crinkled face – the kind you only get after a long hard road in open sun. He was short in stature and bent heavily at the shoulders, as if gravity had an especially hard impact on his person. He always wore the same 70’s style blue running shoes with Velcro and his pants bagged low on his frame. 

As with a lot of KSU Anthro senior level courses, we never had a text book or worksheets. We had Dr. Prufer, sitting up front, telling us his stories. He always had an index card in hand when he entered the classroom but there were usually only three or four undecipherable words written. From that, he could talk for hours (and oftentimes, he did just that). I learned more from him about archaeology than I did from any other professor. Because he had not only dug in the dirt, this man KNEW all the dirt – he knew all the sordid back stories you never hear about academics: Margaret Mead, Hallam Movius, Owen Lovejoy, and many others. 

In our “Native Peoples of North America” class, he told us early on that we would have no research paper, no huge tests, no traditional homework – we only had to show up every single day and listen to his stories. When it came time for the mid-term, he told us “don’t worry – it will be a puff test.” On the day – my very last test before leaving for Christmas break – he waltzed in, dropped a 20 page essay test on our laps, grinned and said, “Merry Christmas, you little fuckers.” And then he merrily waltzed back out again. It took me almost three and a half hours to finish that test and I cursed him the entire time. But I had shown up every single day. I had listened to his stories. I got an A on that test. 

In our “Culture Conflict” class, I had to write a 30 page research paper on the conflict in the Falklands and present it to the entire class. I was extremely nervous and I think he sensed it. Before I began, he pulled me aside, and gave me a piece of hard candy. He patted me on the back and told me to “stop pissing around”. He had such a deep Bavarian accent. When another student began arguing with me over my thesis, Dr. Prufer sat back and watched with a huge grin on his face. The only time he’d interrupt was to tell us to, “stick to the facts.” I left that class pissed off and red faced but I was exhilarated. I had learned in a way that wasn’t taught elsewhere. Culture conflict, indeed. 

He once kidnapped me on an elevator while I was doing some field work for him – undergrads were allowed to help out every so often and our task that day was to sort through human bones that had been in storage so that they could be reclaimed and given back for burial. As I was taking a break from the morgue (where grad students had JUST dissected a gorilla earlier in the day), he led me into a dark back room and began showing me schematics of a mass grave site.It was the Libben site, in Ottawa County, Ohio – his last great professional offering. I sat with him for two hours as he explained the site to me. During that conversation, he wasn’t crass or harsh. He didn’t curse at me. He seemed vulnerable to me then – a teacher that desperately wanted to teach his student. I desperately wanted to learn. 

During the May Day riots that Kent State has become known for (protesting? No. Drinking? In 2000, yes.) he told us about the first and biggest riot to occur at Kent State. How students had been killed on May 4, 1970. How the place was in chaos and property was being destroyed. How the campus was crawling with police and national guardsmen. And how Dr. Prufer had an illegal hand gun in his brief case that day and smuggled it off campus with some of his grad students. It was always about the unofficial back story with Dr. Prufer. 

I was lucky to have him as a teacher. We were all lucky – all of us with our Prufer stories. He will be missed.

 

Note: 

  1. The Ohio Archaeological Council’s Obit of Dr. Prufer: http://goo.gl/hH6VzImage

3 thoughts on “An Ode to Kent State’s Original Bad Ass: Olaf Prufer

  1. This is a great tribute and reminds me of some of my favorite professors at Bard. I wish I remembered them nearly as well.

  2. Very well written. I was fortunate enough to catch Dr. Prufer right near the end. He entered class one afternoon and approached me, asking me to read a piece of his memoir to the class. The writing described an attack on a train depot in Germany when he was a child. The scene was pretty unbelievable and when I paused once to give him a look of disbelief he scolded me, tapped his finger on the table near the book and growled, “keep reading!”
    I’ve got fond memories of sitting and listening to Olaf tell his stories. While his teaching stye was unconventional to say the least, he really taught if you cared to allow him.

  3. This last post reminds me of a German teacher I had in college, Frau Backhaus. She herself was German and had lived through WWII as a young adult. She would tell us these horrible stories about the streets in Hamburg melting from the heat of incendiary bombing and all the civilians getting killed and stacked like cordwood for burial, and end by saying in that thick German accent of hers: “I tell you zis, sveetiepies, not to make you feel guilty, but just to say zat zis is var…horrible, horrible!”

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