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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Professor Emeritus dies at 92, known for illuminated manuscripts

Published: December 6, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

On Nov. 24, Professor Emeritus Joachim Gaehde passed away at 92 years old. Though his wife died in 2002, he had continued to live alone in their home in Arlington, Mass.

Gaehde emigrated from Germany with his wife and received his Ph.D. from New York University. He arrived in America in his 30s, getting a late start to graduate school, and was in his 40s before beginning work at Brandeis.

When Associate Professor of Fine Arts Nancy Scott met Gaehde, he and other senior members of the department formed a unique dynamic in their department, as they all shared similar hard beginnings.

“Professor Gaehde had been trapped essentially in Germany during World War II … and he made allusions to the fact that he was interned, but he never said much about the camps,” Scott began to explain. While Gaehde was a very private person, and therefore did not speak often about his past, Scott believes that he did escape from internment in Germany. On top of Gaehde’s experiences in the war, he worked alongside two other senior members: Professor Maeda, of Japanese descent who was an American citizen interned in Poston, Arizona, during the war, and Professor Borgo, who similarly escaped Italy after the war.

“That was the department into which I was hired … and it was remarkable that Brandeis had this open policy, not only of students with no quotas, but professors themselves were coming out of Europe and seeking a safe place,” Scott said.

Gaehde proved to be a key element in the department. Not only was he a natural leader, but he had the ability to diffuse any tension, whether it be at a small staff meeting or a larger faculty gathering, according to Scott. “He had an enormous amount of charm,” she remembered, “and was always able to take things to a lighter level to dispel conflict … it was more wit than being funny.”

Gaehde’s leadership experience came largely from his role as dean of faculty. While he did not enjoy the job and stepped down from it eventually, “Professor Gaehde was always the one really in charge,” Scott said. He never tried to stay in charge though; when somebody took his role, he made sure to step back and let them work, rather than try to maintain authority.

As a professor, Gaehde was particularly formal, though always showed genuine care for his students. “He read many of his lectures, typed them out, prepared them very carefully. There was a rigor about the way he taught, but he was very kindly, so there was that mixture of the old school gentlemanly mode of teaching with the very kind, gentle concern for the students,” Scott said. Gaehde specialized in teaching the medieval period.

When Gaehde retired from Brandeis, it was a chance for him to do the things he loved to do. He adored his dogs and loved to stick them in the back of his convertible and take them somewhere to go for a long walk, Scott said. Surprisingly, in retirement Gaehde also found a liking for klezmer music.

He also found time to help his wife Christa with her business. Christa had an art conservation studio built at their home in order to work. “She was one of the premier drawings conservators in the United States,” Scott said. She worked with prestigious art from the Guggenheim Museum and hired many apprentices to train and to assist her with her work.

The main work that Gaehde did after retirement was on his manuscripts. Professor Gaehde was an expert on illuminated manuscripts from the period of Charlemagne. While a professor at Brandeis, Gaehde wrote a book on these manuscripts. However after retiring, he wrote another, more important book, and brought it to Rome to present to the Pope. “It was a very important document of sacred texts,” Scott said, “that had to do with Vatican manuscripts … and that was a very nice end of his career achievement.”
“He very much enjoyed his life,” Scott said.