Juergen Kempff, the language program director and professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department, passed away on Oct. 17, 2009. Kempff is survived by his wife, three children and a community at UC Irvine that will sorely miss him.
Born in 1944 in Germany, Kempff joined the UCI faculty in 1993 after getting his PhD in linguistics at UC Santa Barbara. He died of leukemia and lymphoma, illnesses that he had lived with for the past decade.
“It was a very serious illness. He never complained, he never put it as something that would affect his work,” said professor of Spanish and Portuguese Armin Schwegler, a long-time colleague with whom Kempff coauthored the textbook, “Fonetica y Fonologia.”
Kempff was a dedicated professor, also responsible for training TAs and running a well-coordinated Spanish program.
When he took a medical leave of absence this year, he trained Amina Yassine to teach in his place.
“It’s been an ongoing training that unfortunately leaves me without being able to give him his job back,” said Yassine, a lecturer of Spanish and Arabic. She was a TA and student of professor Kempff.
“You would never have known, unless you knew about it, that he was so gravely ill … He was very brave,” said Josie Dwyer, a graduate student of Spanish who knew Kempff for more than two years.
The professor took a medical leave of absence for a year and had planned pick up work in the spring; Dwyer was hoping to take her first class with him when he returned.
Bibiana Diaz, a graduate student now studying in Spain, said that even when he was sick and undergoing chemotherapy, Kempff was constantly smiling, joking and attentive in class. Kempff continued work proofreading another addition of Fonetica y Fonologia until the last three weeks of his life.
“He literally went [on proofreading] to almost the last page,” Schwegler said.
Though Kempff has passed on, his legacy is undiminished in the Spanish department.
“He has been here since ’93 and it is an understatement to say he has contributed a lot to the program,” Yassine said.
Juergen made certain that all Spanish courses of the same level had uniformity for the 550 students taking these language classes.
His “famous memos” and other documents gave TAs all the information they could need, says Diaz, so their focus would be in the classroom, and not on paperwork.
“The level of work he had to do was enormous. And if he had been taken like that — for us, it would have been a total nightmare to run the department. But in typical fashion, he arranged things ahead of time,” Schwegler said.
But Kempff also made an extraordinary mark in the classroom.
“He had a very unique way of teaching; helping the students figure out and resolve grammar problems that almost always led to a very active and interesting discussion,” Diaz said of her classes with Kempff.
His method of teaching had a lasting impact on Yassine. When teaching her native language, Arabic, she at times has difficulty explaining the details of the language she knows intuitively.
“I can say ‘Well, how would I have looked at this in [Professor Kempff’s] grammar class?’” Yassine said.
He was the sort of teacher students cared about. Dwyer says that students would often go in to see him to do nothing more than check on him, and e-mail him during the summer to see how he was doing.
His importance was as a direct result of his impact on his students outside of academics.
“Regardless how difficult the day might be, the very thought that he was in his office, teaching, helping us with our classes, helped me get through,” Diaz said.
“For me, it’s hard to not be able to pick up the phone [to Kempff] and say ‘This came up and I cannot find an answer.’ The moment of self-doubt … knowing that he’s not there … then I think, ‘Well, he did train me. I will do my best,’” Yassine said.
“I think there is going to be a big space left by him,” Dwyer said. “I know that Amina [Yassine] is going to do a wonderful job, but we will definitely feel that he’s gone.”
Everyone agreed that Kempff was a kind, warm-hearted person, with a sense of humor and an inability to brag about anything but golf.
“Fridays, he never wanted to work, he wanted to play golf. And nothing could get him out of golf,” Schwegler said.
At the memorial service for Kempff on the 25th, the TAs presented a scrapbook they assembled of collective stories of their mentor.
Their sentiments are deeply and collectively felt: “We’re going to miss him,” Dwyer said.