My friend and former colleague Wolfgang Natter died suddenly on April 29th. He was serving as Vice President of Academic Affairs at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota at his passing. I came to know him and to work closely with him when he served as Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) Ph.D. program here at Virginia Tech from 2005-2010. We shared many interests, including an abiding belief that theory matters and that interdisciplinary inquiry and capacity represent the sine qua non of efforts to address society’s stickiest and most elemental challenges. Indeed, he led a successful effort to develop a forward-looking and deeply thoughtful curriculum for ASPECT that sought to ensure that students completing the degree would graduate equipped with the intellectual and personal capabilities to address just such concerns. That, of course, was no mean feat. But Wolfgang never doubted it would come to fruition and he believed just as deeply in the students selected for the new program. He was, as all of those who participated in ASPECT under his direction would attest, genuinely concerned that each of them be given every opportunity to succeed, and he worked assiduously and unselfishly to ensure that result. There are individuals whose appearance attracts the attention of their peers. Others obtain standing as a result of their charisma. Still others attain admiration by force of integrity and character. I employ these examples to highlight the fact that Wolfgang garnered respect and attention as a deeply learned person of boundless energy, compassion and curiosity. He was ardent about ideas and about their portent for making meaning in the world, and he was just as devoted to helping others realize how far their curiosity and intellectual and emotional imaginations could carry them. My sense always was that it was this zeal coupled with his kindness and intellectual capacity that drew individuals to him. He shared insights freely and was always ready to consider a new idea or to recast an argument or, indeed, his own perspective, when persuaded such was appropriate. In short, his persona was magnetic and his presence palpable.
To these characteristics, Wolfgang added an impish wit and a mischievous streak and smile that were consistently winning and thoroughly genuine. He laughed easily and whatever the stresses of this life, he never once lost sight of the joys it represented. These attributes made him great fun to be around. One never knew what sly remark, thoughtful comment or subtle observation might come next. He possessed a winning personality in every sense of that phrase.
Today, many intellectuals work diligently to command a limited repertoire of knowledge. Wolfgang was never so content. His interests and perspective were both broad and deep and these enabled him to interact thoughtfully with geographers, political scientists, historians and religion scholars, among others, with ease and self-evident confidence. To these capacities, Wolfgang added a lively interest in ensuring that all could grasp how theory could inform their daily worlds, whatever their professional vocation or academic discipline, a refreshing and complex orientation in a polity that so consistently prizes the applied.
In sum, Wolfgang was a thoughtful and gifted intellectual with a drive to understand how ideas could shape the world in a society that too often fails to acknowledge such abilities and passions, an individual of immense gifts who shared his capacities and curiosity unselfishly and with an eye to the needs of those with whom he worked, and a person of great kindness, humility and abiding empathy. I will not soon forget his good humor, bright smile and openness to the world. It is somehow bracing that one like Wolfgang could work and succeed in today’s academy, and for that reason, among so many others, it is all the more sad that he has gone from us so soon.