Honoring the 'Proverbial Pied Piper' ~ Professor Wolfgang Mieder
- By Thomas Weaver
On his sixty-fifth birthday, Professor Wolfgang Mieder's friends and fellow faculty surprised him with a Tuesday afternoon event that was both professional tribute to one of the world's leading folklore and proverb scholars and personal celebration of a man who has been a warm, collegial presence on the UVM campus for nearly forty years.
Mieder was feted in Memorial Lounge, where President Daniel Mark Fogel presented him with a book produced in his honor, The Proverbial "Pied Piper," a festschrift edited by Professor Kevin McKenna and published by Peter Lang.
In an interview last week, McKenna explained that the festschrift is a tradition of the academy, a celebratory book reserved for only top veteran scholars. Self-confessed instigator of a year-long web of white lies designed to keep the project a secret, McKenna drove the Mieder collection from start to finish.
"Wolfgang is no dummy," McKenna said, describing the challenge he knew he'd face in pulling off the surprise. When he ran the idea by Barbara Mieder, Wolfgang's wife, she told him the couple had vowed 30 years ago never to subject one another to a surprise party, but she agreed to look the other way. She wasn't planning the event; technically, her hands were clean.
McKenna swore the volume's twenty-three contributors, many of them on the UVM faculty, to secrecy. He juggled schedules to make sure Mieder, President Fogel, Provost Hughes and other key players would all be in town on Feb. 17. He even concocted the ruse of his own lecture on "The Role of the Russian Proverb in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Fictional and Publistic Works" to lure Mieder into Memorial Lounge at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
Mieder thought he was there to introduce McKenna's talk. But as he launched into his comments, McKenna stepped up and revealed the day's true intent. The doors of Memorial Lounge swung open and special guests led by President Fogel and Rachel Kahn Fogel streamed into the room.
McKenna suspected (and worried) that the surprise would have a strong emotional impact on Mieder, a sentimental man. Though he pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes, the professor handled the moment with good humor. Following tributes from a number of colleagues, Mieder took the microphone. "Would you like me to give my introduction for Kevin now?" he quipped. Mieder then thanked those who had made the day and paid tribute back to those who honored him. "When you work someplace you want to be, it makes you a happy trooper," he said. "UVM is a damn good place to dedicate a life to."
Mieder called the festschrift "one of the joys in the academic tradition. For a little professor like me, it is about the ultimate thing."
The Mieder festschrift drew contributions from scholars in Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel and the United States. Though most of the essays are in English, there are also pieces in French, German, Spanish and Russian. As McKenna writes in the collection's preface, the essays "treat a vast number of folklore and proverb themes, ranging from puns and anti-proverbs to urban legends revolving around the zipper; from a paremiological study of the treatment of racism in an American novel to graphic proverb depictions in a set of seventeenth-century playing cards."
In making the volume possible, McKenna cites the support of the president and provost's office; Joan and Eugene Kalkin; Jerold Jacobson and Gertrude Holle-Suppa Jacobson; Douglas Smith and Stephanie Ellis-Smith; and the Knight Vision Foundation.
In addition to McKenna, UVM faculty contributing essays to the book include Rob Gordon, Dennis Mahoney, Helga Schreckenberger, Juan Maura, Antonello Borra, and Adriana Borra.
In his essay, "A Few Remarks on Piedmontese Proverbs," Antonello Borra, associate professor of Romance Languages, delves into well-known proverbs in his home region of Italy. Lamenting that the clandestine nature of the project means he can't seek advice from the master, Borra soldiers on with a piece focused on proverbs about friendship, study, teaching, and work — all themes that resonate with the life of Wolfgang Mieder.
In his research, Borra happened upon one particular nugget of wisdom that he felt captured the spirit of unflagging curiosity that has driven UVM's "proverbial pied piper" to write some 150 books, more than 300 articles, and influence thousands of students.
As they say in northern Italy's Piedmont:
Tut ij mèis a fà la lun-a e tut ij di as n'ampara un-a.
Every month there is a new moon and every day one learns something new.