Richard Rodriguez Remembers Historian Franz Schurmann

Story tools

A A AResize



EDITOR’S NOTE: Eminent scholar and historian Franz Schurmann, who co-founded Pacific News Service in 1970, passed away on Aug. 20, 2010. Richard Rodriguez, a long-time editor and writer with PNS, remembered him in a powerful eulogy delivered Sept. 19 at UC Berkeley Alumni House.


Franz Schurmann was a terrible driver.

I remember once, after lunch, in his car, he was still talking about the Peloponnesian War or Richard Nixon in China or the spiritual energy, he predicted, would come from Latin America and wash over our gringo nation of drug users—and he ran a red light at Arguello. Horns. Fingers. Franz drove on.

His father died when Franz was 13 years old.

People say about children who suffer the trauma of a parent’s death early in life, that they often are filled with anger at the injustice of life or an out-sized appetite for life. Franz was often angry, always hungry.

When I entered the Mayflower restaurant (he was never late), he was sitting in the corner seat, reading a Filipino newspaper or the Koran in Arabic or a Chinese book of poems. He had learned to read the world and put the world into his mouth.

He was going deaf. “Sit on my good side,” he said. In all the years, I never figured out which was his good side.

He left the ordering to me. He ate more than half of the meal.

He spoke in metaphors.

He described himself as a “peasant.” Tenure at Berkeley had given him what he called his “bowl of rice.” He was drawn to what he called “biology”—by which he meant the Southern Hemisphere, the crowded 38 Geary Street bus, visionaries of the mountains, religious belief, the ambitions of China, and the spreading desert (never the snow).

He was in awe of the movement of people, all over the world, venturing so far from home.

He was suspicious of what he called the world of “physics”— intellectuals who sat in their university offices and wrote of the world; the pale intellectuals who—in his words—”sucked on the tit” at East Coast think tanks and were apt to be interviewed by NPR. He loathed the New York Times. He derided the “green” environmentalists of the “North” who drove their eco-friendly cars and urged the masses of the Southern Hemisphere to have fewer babies.

Often, because he was going deaf, he shouted. And the tables all turned in our direction to see.

He confided to me that he was, after his father died, afraid of going to the basement (his father’s workshop) in their Hartford house. He once saw his father’s ghost. About death, as about nothing else, Franz seemed afraid. When death came for him, he met it in silence.

He traveled everywhere in the world, it seemed, except the Europe that his father had known.

He was patient with high school dropouts. He was patient talking to my Mexican mother (my mother who adored his wife, Sandy, and was suspicious of Franz). My mother scored (in her mind) some point about Latin America. “Aha, Mr. Professor, you don’t know everything,” my mother said in triumph. Franz smiled patiently.

I phoned him in the middle of a workday because I had to write a television essay on the first anniversary of Sept 11. I was interested in the number zero: Ground Zero. Franz did not say—would never say—I am busy, call me back. He stopped whatever he had been doing or thinking to talk about the Mayans and their discovery of zero.

He never volunteered information about his life. I had to ask about Harvard. I had to ask him about his meeting Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood. I had to ask about Istanbul. Once asked, he was generous in his reply.

I told him that he should submit to an interview from an oral historian, talk about the adventure of his life. He was not interested—either because he was too vain to sit through the oral historian’s questions or too humble.

He carried what he knew with him on his long, furious walks through San Francisco. He read store signs and he studied churches as though they were texts. He often noticed that, in Chinese restaurants, there would be a young man, not Asian, eating alone. Franz saw himself in that young man.

The most important thing he taught me, by example, was that ideas were to be lived. If you want to know China, put Mandarin and Cantonese into your mouth. If you want to understand Afghanistan, travel on horseback through Afghanistan for two years. If you dare to have an idea, then dare not to be homesick.

I will always be his student, less than the teacher he was. I lack the daring of his life, the languages, the kindness and the fury of his life.

When he was a young man, spending Santa Monica summers with the dramatist Bertolt Brecht and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, he almost got killed the night that Thomas Mann’s brother, drunk, drove him home from a party and smashed the car into a tree.

Summer afternoons, he would accompany Helene Weigel to swim in the Pacific.

“You must have been a very beautiful young man,” I said to Franz, many years after those summer days of his youth. I meant that, in order to interest an actress as worldly and sophisticated as Weigel, Franz would have needed to have been a winning young man, filled with promise and the beauty of youth.

Franz shrugged and muttered. He muttered “yes.”

Richard Rodriguez is the author of “Brown: The Last Discovery of America.” Pacific News Service’s 40th anniversary celebration and alumni reunion will take place Nov. 12.