The Great Seminary Hoax of 1986

Two weeks ago, in a sermon, I told about the “duck parties” held at seminary. Today, I am posting a story about some nonsense that occurred during my first term at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Other recent posts include memories of Professor von Waldow and Dean Mauser and his secretary. Good memories.


My only experience in dorm-living was my first year in seminary. I boarded on the third floor of Fisher Hall. I stayed in the dorm to save expenses as I still had a house and mortgage payments when I left for seminary (I sold the house soon afterwards).

Across from my room was Ken, a student from Japan. A language whiz, Ken spoke several Slavic languages but needed work on his English. We did our best to help, but who among us will forget the day he asked a visiting professor from Prague a question. Unable to get his question across in English, he switched to Russia or Czech or something strange and the professor answered him in an equally strange tongue. The rest of us sat around witnessing a firsthand example of glossolalia. 

The view behind the seminary from 3rd Floor Fisher, January 1987

Down the hall, to the north, was Keith. A United Methodist student, Keith also managed the school’s hockey rink. When not in use, the hockey rink served as the hallway for third floor Fisher.  Being from the South, hockey was something new to me and I did my best to avoid the games.


In the room next to mine, to the south, was Jim. Unfortunately, he dropped out before the two of us could finish what would have been a best seller: “A Theological Drinking Guide to Pittsburgh.” Having been used to living in a house, and with nightly hockey matches going on outside my door, getting out to the local bars around Pittsburgh (many within walking distance) was an escape and a way to maintain sanity.

There were many others on the floor, but the four of us played a prominent role in the “perfect storm” that just about got me booted back to the piney woods of North Carolina. 

The room to my north, between mine and Keith’s, was empty. Keith read an article on Christian sexuality written by Rodney Clapp. Being a careful reader, what caught Keith’s attention was the author’s name. It seemed fitting a man whose last name was slang for a venereal disease would write on sexuality. Keith decided Clapp needed to be a classmate. He made up a nameplate for the empty room. “That’s Clapp’s room,” we’d tell people, he’s an esteemed alumnus from Pittsburgh and maintains a room here. A week or so later, Clapp’s pretend presence on campus took a strange twist. 

Ken, who’d just arrived in American, became fascinated with a certain group of American newspapers generally found in the check-out lines at the supermarket. He read these papers religiously, trying to improve his English and learn about this strange country in which he was living. One day, at the local Giant Eagle Supermarket, he picked up a copy of the National Enquirer, or maybe one of the other tabloids. The lead article featured the story of an unnamed hell-fire preacher who spontaneously combusted in the pulpit. After his particularly fiery sermon, all that was left was ashes. It must be true. It was in print. Such an event should have certainly been studied in homiletics, but I don’t recall it being mentioned.

As no one had seen Clapp recently, it was logically assumed he was the unnamed preacher. Ken posted the article on Clapp’s door. Over the next week, letters from all around the world started appearing, in different languages, offering condolences to Rodney’s family and friends. Clapp’s deeds and misdeeds were recalled. 

Around this time, for reasons I still don’t understand, had chapel duty. Normally first-year students were exempt, but for some reason I said I’d do it. I thought daily chapel would be the perfect setting for a “Rodney Clapp Memorial Service.” Somehow, word got out to the powers-that-be what was being planning. Dr. Oman, the homiletics professor, called me into his office and informed me there would be no faux funeral in chapel.

Disappointed at being unable to involve the entire community, we planned our own funeral. Although not a Protestant tradition, we included a wake. We could be ecumenical if it meant a good party. On December 2, 1986, after an evening of basketball (after all, we did have our priorities), a crowd of us gathered in the Fisher lounge for Clapp’s wake and funeral. In the center of the room, laid out like a casket, was the door from Clapp’s room. It was covered with letters of condolences and tokens of our love and adoration for him. Sitting on the top of the door was a plastic container holding some ashes someone obtained.

We gathered around Clapp’s remains and said our goodbyes. We read scripture. Chosen passages alluded to fire. Nonsensical tales about our experiences with Clapp were shared. Taking great liberty with the funeral liturgy, we replaced hymns with more appropriate music such as the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Afterwards, as Clapp’s ashes floated out the window and across the lawn, we had a final toast. 

Mourners paying respect at Clapp’s Memorial Service, Dec. 2, 1986

With the funeral out of my way, I still had to do my duty in chapel. A day or two later I stood before the crowd of students and professors and delivered one of those boring first year seminary student sermons. The best part of it were a few lines of poetry I quoted from John Beecher, whom I felt deserved an introduction.  

The service was dreadfully serious until I was about halfway through my message. Before the service, Jim came into the chapel and took two fire extinguishers off the walls by the doors. Unbeknownst to everyone, he placed the extinguishers on the chancel, one on each side of the pulpit. As I was trying to make a serious point which I’m sure expressed some eternal consequence, someone in the row of students from Fisher Hall noticed the fire extinguishers. He began to laugh while pointing it out to the person next to him. Slowly, like a wave moving across the chapel, each student poked the guy next to him and pointed to the fire extinguishers. The laughter spread. Soon, among a crowd of somber Presbyterians, one pew laughed hysterically. I smirked, bit my tongue, and looked down at my notes. I knew if I looked out upon the gathered congregation, all would be lost. 

I’m sure most of those in chapel that day, unaware of the joke that had been building for a month, felt those of us from Fisher Hall were downright rude. And they were right. 

I’m not sure who I was trying to impress in a suit. I’m on the left with three classmates (Roger, Vivian, and Doug) as we prepared to head back to Pittsburgh from the 1988 General Assembly in St. Louis. The rest were dressed causal for the trip. This may be the last photo of me without a beard. I grew one in the summer of 1987, but shaved it off early in the fall. After this meeting, I headed West for an intern year and grew my beard back. I haven’t been clean shaven since. As for my hair, well, I’m not sure what happen.

God can multiply our efforts

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
July 31, 2022
Luke 9:10-17

I’m not sure what happened to the title slide… Like my tie? It ties into the story. Sermon recorded under the picnic shelter at Bluemont Church.

At the beginning of worship:

Do any of you know what miracle is found in all four of the gospels? Let me give you a hint, it has to do with food.

Meals are important in Scripture. It’s with a meal the Jewish people recall the Exodus experience, when they were freed from bondage in Egypt. It’s with a meal Jesus has us to share with one another to recall his ministry along with his death and resurrection. Symbolically, heaven is described as a banquet or a wedding feast.[1]

Meals and feeding others are a part of what the church is to be about. It may be a hot dog roast or a potluck dinner for members, a soup kitchen or food pantry for those in need. We must eat and it’s best when we share food with others. 

Today we’re going to look at the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (plus) in Luke’s gospel. It’s the only miracle that can be found in all four gospels, so it’s a big deal.[2]

Before the reading of Scripture

For the past couple of months, we’ve been working our way through the middle part of Luke’s gospel as we consider how Jesus’ teachings and ministry might inform today’s church. Last week, we ended with Herod asking a question. “Just who is this guy doing all this stuff?”[3]

Luke likes to let questions linger and then have them answered in a later story. We saw this after the storm on Galilee. Jesus calmed the wind and waves, and the disciples ask each other, “who is this guy?”[4] We’re left hanging without an answer until they pull ashore. There, a demon-possessed man shouts the answer: “Jesus, Son of the Living God.”[5]

In today’s passage we’re not going to get a direct answer to this question. That’ll come next week. But we get an indirect answer. Once again, we see Jesus doing only what God can do. He performs a miracle that is every bit as incredible as manna that fed the Hebrew people in the desert.[6] He feeds a lot of people. 

Feeding 5,000 plus

We’re told there are 5,000 men there, but the word here is not the Greek word that’s often translated as men but means humankind.[7] This is a word that means male, which implies there are a lot more than 5,000 people present if we account for women. Of course, that’s a minor detail. It makes little difference if it’s 5 or 10 thousand if all you have are a few small loaves of bread and some fish. As a mere mortal, we’d be unable to feed everyone. Like it was in last week’s sermon, Jesus trains the disciples to depend upon God. 

Let’s listen to how Luke tells this story of our Savior: 

Read Luke 9:10-17

An unexpected gift

“Jeff Garrison.” On my first winter of seminary, while walking the hallway between classes, I was shocked to hear Sam Calian, the seminary president, call out my name. He wanted to see me in his office. I wondered what I’d done. I felt I was being called into the principal’s office, a place I got to know well in elementary and junior high.

When I stepped into his office, I was even more surprised by his question. “You’ve cooked duck, haven’t you?” 

“Yes,” I said. I had no idea where this conversation was going. I thought it best not to tell him that the two ducks I’d cooked, had been slathered with an orange liqueur sauce. This was an attempt to impress potential girlfriends. It worked on the first one, so I tried it again. 

“I’ll give you some ducks if you want to prepare them for some of the students,” he said. 

“Where did these ducks come from?” I asked.

“One of the board members gave them to me. He shoots them up in Canada. They’ve all been cleaned and packaged. I don’t plan to cook them, so they’re yours if you want.”

These were not going to be those plumb store brought ducks.

I began to understand. As a male Southerner, he assumed I hunted and prepared my own meat, probably over a fireplace in some run-down piney wood cabin. 

An impromptu party

Not sure what to expect, the next day he told me the ducks were in the freezer in the cafeteria. I went to look. The box held about twenty birds. There wasn’t anything else to do but to call for a party. And, in the pre-Google days, figure out how to cook these birds. 

I gathered up a group, made assignments for side dishes, and borrowed two large baking pans from the cafeteria. That Saturday, we had a heck of a party. The next year, we had even an even better party. These ducks, like the bread and fish in our story, were a gift that kept giving.

The setting of our reading:

As we continue along in the middle part of Luke’s gospel, we learn that 12 have returned from their missionary trip. They tell Jesus all that’s happened as they head to Bethsaida. The name of the town means, “The house of fishers.” Appropriate, as it’s the city of the fishermen: Peter, Philip, and Andrew.[8]

Our Savior tries to pull the 12 off by themselves, probably to debrief. Yet people still want to see Jesus. His popularity is probably helped in these parts by Peter and the other local boys who have done good. So now, thousands of people flock to Jesus. 

Jesus welcomes the crowd

And what does Jesus do? He welcomes them. Jesus tends to their needs. He heals the sick and teaches about the Kingdom of God. But as the sun drops closer to the horizon, the disciples worry. Where are they going to get enough food to feed all these people. So, they suggest that Jesus disperse the crowds so they can find food. It’s an honest suggestion. People must eat. Besides, to have thousands of hungry stomachs grumbling wouldn’t look good for the local boys. 

The disciples’ problem

Jesus tells them to feed the crowd. Now it’s their problem. Looking at what little they have available, five loaves and two fish, they ask if they should go into the towns and buy all the bread available. With so many, we can imagine the shelves of bakeries looking like the shelves of grocery stores the day before a forecasted blizzard. 

What we learn from the other Gospels

Now, at this point, other gospels provide different information. John’s gospel tells us the bread and fish came from a boy’s lunch. Mark depicts Jesus being more forceful with the disciples who appear to question his ability.[9] Luke has Jesus give orders and the disciples being obedient as they separate the crowd into manageable groups of fifty. Then Jesus looks to heaven as he blesses and breaks the bread. And miraculously, the disciples feed the crowd. 

Two words: “All” and “Filled”

We’re told that all ate and were filled. The words all and filled are both significant. The later would have reminded the disciples of Jesus second beatitude as recorded by Luke, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.[10] The word “all” is perhaps more significant. In Jewish society, the eating of food was highly regulated. One had to abide by laws over the type of food and utensils, how it is prepared and who is clean. The dining room table excluded those not clean. But here, the kosher requirements are overlooked. Everyone is welcomed.[11]

Not only that, but after everyone has been fed, there is an abundance of food. Each of the twelve haul away a basket full of scraps. 

Other feeding stories

This story harkens back to the story of the feeding of the Israelites in the desert, as well as looks forward to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus instituted on the night of his betrayal. The sharing of food is important for Christians. And not just among ourselves, but for anyone hungry. It’s not just the faithful, those who believed Jesus, that were feed that day. All were fed… 

First point: feeding people

The first point to realize that the church, which is called to exhibit God’s kingdom to the world, is to be generous. We are to do what it can to care for the needs of others. “Feed them,” Jesus said. At the end of John’s gospel, when Jesus talks with Peter, he insists three times that if Peter loves Jesus he should be feeding or tending his sheep. That’s the church’s role, then and now, to feed people. 

Monthly, we take up the two-cent a meal offering that goes to help fight hunger. We are to help those who are hungry with food. Furthermore, we help those who hunger for knowledge and understanding by sharing Jesus’ story. The church is about feeding the hungry, regardless of what they’re hungry for. 

Second point: God blesses our offerings

The second point to understand from this passage is that when we trust and give to God, God can bless and multiply our gifts. 

What would have happened if one or two of the disciples slipped away with the five loaves and two fish to satisfy their hunger? They could have had their own little party. But they shared even when it seemed they had only a drop in the bucket of what was needed. Don’t ever think you don’t have enough to make a difference. What little we have, when give to God, can be enough. 

As Paul tells the Corinthians, God uses what is weak and lowly to show his glory in the world.[12] Think about the widow giving her mite.[13] We are to be generous with what we have and trust God to make up the difference.


Food has a way to bring us together, as it did with the 100s of groups of 50 gathered around Jesus that afternoon. Like those duck dinners at seminary, sharing brings us closer. We all need to eat, and it’s good to eat with others. It’s even better to share with those who need, whether its physical nourishment or just companionship and encouragement. Let’s do it. Amen.

[1] This idea has its roots in Isaiah 25:6. The find the wedding concept in Revelation 21. Matthew 8:11 also describes a gathering of people from all around for a banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

[2] Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, John 6:1-14

[3] Luke 9:7-9.  See my sermon on the larger passage:

[4] Luke 8:22-25.  See my sermon on this passage:

[5] Luke 8:28. See my sermon on this passage:

[6] Exodus 16.

[7] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 265. 

[8] Edwards, 265. 

[9] John 6:1-15, Mark 6:30-44.

[10] Luke 6:2.

[11] Edwards, 267. 

[12] 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. 

[13] Luke 21:1-4

Some of God’s gifts are slower in coming. Butternut squash on the vine.

The Dean and his secretary

Dean Mauser

From the internet (it appears as if it was from the seminary’s directory)

Two weeks ago, I posted a memoir about one of my seminary professors who had been a tank commander in the German army in World War II. I mentioned he wasn’t my only professor who spent time on the other side during that terrible war. The other was Ulrich Mauser, the dean of the seminary. He was a kind and gentle man. I only took one class with him, a New Testament survey class. But when another professor, Dr. Kelly, had medical issues while teaching on the Book of Acts, Mauser took over and finished out the term. I essentially had him as a professor for a term and a half. But I got to know him in other ways, too.

Unlike von Waldow, Mauser didn’t talk about the war, at least not around me. I remember him mentioning his involvement once. We were sitting together in the dining room at lunch. He sat among a group of students and there may have been other professors. Somehow, the topic of the war came up. Mauser recalled being a student in Germany during the war. As Germany needed more and more soldiers, he received a notice every year to report for a physical in preparation for being drafted into the armed forces. But because of health issues and poor eyesight, he always received a deferment and would return to school. However, in late 1944, according to Dr. Mauser, things had gotten so bad they did care that he couldn’t see. With his thick eyeglasses, without which he was nearly blind, they assigned him to an anti-aircraft flack gun on top of a building in Berlin. As most of the air attacks came at night, there wasn’t even a way to aim. They just pointed the guns up into the sky and shot in the general direction of the drone of engines. 

While he wasn’t really involved in combat, the war had an affect upon Dr. Mauser. His family home was destroyed by a bomb. He also became very interested in the Biblical understanding of peace. His last book, The Gospel of Peace, focused on this life-long theme. 

Mauser’s studied at the University of Tubingen in Germany where he received his doctorate, writing a dissertation on Martin Luther. He also spent time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he met his wife. After his schooling, as a young pastor in post-war Germany, he served in a congregation that mostly consisted of displaced people. 

My best memory of Dr. Mauser came after a disappointing relationship with Debbie, his secretary. Below, I posted a piece I wrote in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer. After Debbie became engaged to someone else, Dr. Mauser invited me out to lunch. We went to a restaurant in Shadyside. As if he was my pastor, he was concerned with my emotional state. Ironically, at the time I was on the top of the world, having essentially completed the Appalachian Trail. While he never appeared as an outdoor type of person, Mauser was interested in my experience along the trail. I learned how it tied to his work on the theme of wilderness in scripture. 

When I graduated from Pittsburgh in 1990, Dr. Mauser was winding up his tenure at the school. He had moved to America in 1959, to serve as a chaplain at Oregon State University. In 1964, he began teaching at Louisville Theological Seminary. In 1977, he was appointed a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary and became Dean in 1981. Turning 65 in 1990, and he faced mandatory retirement as was the seminary’s practice at the time. So, Dr. Mauser accepted an appoint at Princeton, where he taught six more years before returning to Pittsburgh for his final years. 

I last saw Dr. Mauser at a Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando Florida in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after 911. I had not seen him since graduation. He appeared delighted to run into me and we later shared a meal together. He died in 2008. 

Ulrich W. Mauser’s obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Debbie, the Dean’s secretary

Written in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer: 

A photo I took in May 1987

Debbie was beautiful. She turned heads with her broad smile, big eyes, and hardy laugh. She wore flowing dresses with heels that clicked and gave shape to her calves. And she was the Dean’s secretary. In my first year of seminary, I never thought she would have been interested in me. Then, a month or so before school ended for the summer, she invited me to over for Sunday evening’s dinner at her place. Wanting to make a good impression, I brought along a bottle of wine, Pouilly-Fuisse. I learned she seldom drank, but she seemed impressed and suggested we open the bottle and celebrate. Of course, she had no corkscrew. She suggested she might borrow one for a neighbor, but I told her I thought I had a solution. I ran out to my car. Ever the Boy Scout, I had a Swiss-army knife with a corkscrew attachment in my glove compartment.    

On Easter Sunday, I was invited to dinner with her family on Pittsburgh’s Southside. When we arrived at her parents’ home, her brothers were watching a documentary on a race car driver, Elliott Forbes-Robinson.  Although I had never been a big fan of racing, I knew him. When I was working for the Boy Scouts, he was an assistant Scoutmaster on a troop on Lake Norman. I recalled the story of meeting him, at a scout camp. When he told me he was a race car driver, I asked if he raced at Hickory speedway. Hickory was a step up from the dirt tracks of the South, but most of the drivers were still amateurs. “No,” he said, “I have not raced there.” “Where do you race?” I asked. He started listing off an impressive list of cities with Cam-Am and such races. I stood there thinking, “Yeah, right, and I’m Daniel Boone.” I later learned he really was a race car driver, although at the time he didn’t drive NASCAR. He did drive those fancy cars and was one of the top drivers in the world. He had a boy in scouts and as he wasn’t racing that week, had come to camp with his son’s troop. Telling the story, Debbie’s brothers learned that I really wasn’t a racing fan, but they were impressed that I had personally met one of the greats. 

Over the next few weeks, we began having lunch together in the dining hall and went out every weekend. I suggested a Saturday afternoon baseball game and she was up for it. When I arrived to pick her up, she handed me two tickets! I didn’t know what to say, but as a poor student was thankful. Then I looked at the seats and was humbled. Her brother worked for one of the high-end hotels in Pittsburgh and they had tickets that no one had claimed so he gave them to Debbie for us to enjoy. We sat directly behind home plate, five rows up. I never had such good seats for a major league game. It’s easy to love a girl whose brother arranges to cover the expenses of a date.  

Later that evening, Debbie and I walked up a hill and held hands as we watched the sun set. I felt as if I was the luckiest man in the world.

Debbie was close to her family and on another weekend, she and her brothers had given their mother an evening ride in a balloon across Southwestern Pennsylvania. When the mother got in the basket with a few other sightseers and a pilot, we raced along the countryside following the balloon until they finally set down in a cow pasture and we retrieved her mother. This would be a lot easier today, with cell phones, but this was 1987.

The day I left school at the end of the semester, we had breakfast together at a local King’s Restaurant. I wanted to do something special and had purchased some of her favorite perfume, hoping that as she used it, she would remember me. She seemed pleased and we even talked about her meeting up with me in Delaware Water Gap as I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Although we were not in a committed relationship, we talked about picking up where we were at in September.

After breakfast, I drove to my parents in North Carolina and a week later, started my summer hike from Virginia to Maine. At first, she wrote and seemed excited when I called, but as I continued to hike, I heard less and less from her. I knew something was up. Even though I had started hiking with the thoughts of coming back to her arms, I realized this was not going to be the case. When I arrived back at school, I was on cloud nine, having just finished my summer hike, essentially completing the Appalachian Trail completed (I still had a 25-mile section down south to complete). That first day back everyone seemed concerned about how I was going to take being dropped, but I had given up on her mid-way through the summer. I learned she had connected with someone at a wedding (they may had known each other before) and was engaged. One of the kindness things that happened was the Dean inviting me out to lunch. He, too, was concerned with how I was handling things, but we mostly talked about my hike as my head was still in the mountains. After a summer of hiking, our short romance seemed light-years away.

A few years ago, Debbie sent me a message and a friendship request via Facebook. A quarter century had passed as she left her position as the Dean’s secretary shortly after I’d returned from hiking the trail. We chatted a few times and I learned her marriage had been horrible and she had spent most of her life on her own, but that she was blessed with a couple of boys who are now adults. She apologized for having treated me horribly. I thanked her for the apology but told her my life had continued and was going well. Then she told me about the breast cancer. Over the years since that chat, I would occasionally learn through Facebook about how each new treatment was less effective. But she was strong in her faith and always maintained a positive outlook, but at times she’d ask for prayers, and I would pray. In early May, the disease finally took her, and I found myself shedding tears. She was a beautiful woman who was so proud of her boys (her sons and her brothers). I felt a small piece of their pain.   

Remembering Professor von Waldow

“You have a great opportunity here,” Professor Eberhard von Waldow said on the opening day of class. “You get to learn the language of God in a German accent.” And then, pointing the stick he always brought into class at me, he continued, “And you even get to learn it with a Southern accent.” 

“Was that how they spoke in Judea?” I asked sarcastically. He grinned and continued telling us about the richness of the Hebrew language and how the New Testament was just an appendix to the Old. 

This was in the fall of 1987. There were seven of us in the class and we sat around a long oak table in a conference room at Pittsburgh Seminary. All of us were nervous. With his Prussian roots, von Waldow had a reputation for being verbally abusive to the unprepared. But I signed up for his class because I knew it would be small. I would receive individual attention. In addition, the fear of having him humiliate you was enough to make sure I would do the required work. Throughout the academic year, until May, we met in that classroom. Sadly, today, I remember more of his stories than I do about the language. 

As a young man, “Waldo,” as some of us called him behind his back (in person you always addressed him as either Professor or Doctor) had been a tank commander in the German army. Most of the time he spent on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians. Wounded in 1944, he returned to Germany to recuperate. He ended the war on the Western front. With a rag-tag army of kids and old men, his orders were to to help stop the advance of the Allies. Realizing the absurdity of this, he surrendered to the British.

After the war, he became a pacifist and finished his university studies. Like his father before him, he became a Lutheran pastor and scholar. He would teach at Pittsburgh for over thirty years. Living in a neighbor that had many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, he had to confront his past. He made friends among the Jewish people. In November 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an event in which violence against the Jews broke out across Germany, he spoke in a local synagogue. 

I couldn’t attend his Kristallnacht talk because I was serving First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada as a student pastor at the time. However, we occasionally corresponded and he sent me his manuscript (which, over the years, I’ve lost). In it, he describes being in the school at the time when fire fighters stood back and let Jewish synagogues and businesses burn. His father became upset about what was happening. His father would be twice arrested by the Gestapo, but it was a Russian soldier killed him at the end of the war. In his later years, Von Waldow wanted it known that there were Germans who hated all that the Third Reich stood for. Sadly, as a young man out of high school, he had no choice but to report to duty when drafted. 

Eberhard von Waldow occasionally told stories about the war. As an academic, his methodology was steeped in German higher criticism, which many condemn for discounting miracles and divine providence. When asked about his position on miracles, von Waldow told about riding in a tank that had a 500 bomb detonate on the top of the tank’s turret. “I said, “ah, shit” and then couldn’t hear for a few weeks. “But I survived,” he continued. “Some might say it was Krupp armor that saved me, but I know better. Had that bomb landed elsewhere except on the very top of the turret, I wouldn’t be here.”

One day, I wore a pink shirt to class. We were learning about Hebrew vowel points and how certain ones would soften a letter. As a teacher, Von Waldow was quick to come up with illustrations. He pointed to my shirt and said, “Look, Jeff put this white shirt in the wash with a red one and now he has a pink shirt.” I’m sure his conservative Prussian background meant he couldn’t understand a man wearing pink.  

Another time, I made some kind of quip about the German composer Wagner. I knew von Waldow was a classical music lover and a big supporter of public radio, but this didn’t get me any extra points. He went off on a tangent about Wagner. The Third Reich had adopted the music of Wagner and he’d heard enough of this music during the war that he never wanted to hear it again. Now, I wonder if the music might have caused him post-traumatic stress.

The room in which we met had a life-sized portrait of a faculty member from either late in the 19th or early 20th century. Oddly, because this wasn’t really a Presbyterian thing, the guy in the portrait wore a clergy collar. One day, out of the blue, von Waldow came into class and began to berate this portrait for wearing a collar. At this time, several of the Lutheran students at the seminary were wearing collars when they preached or worked in church positions. But von Waldow was too conservative for collars. As a Southerner, I sympathized with von Waldow. Collars were too formal for me. I’ve never worn one. 

Around campus, everyone knew that von Waldow was working on his magus opus, a commentary on the prophet Jeremiah. I took a survey class of Hebrew prophets, taught by Dr. Donald Gowan, another Old Testament professor and prolific author. At the opening of each lecture on a different prophet, Gowan provided a list of commentaries he recommended. The day he lectured on Jeremiah, he confessed he had problems with every commentary available at the time. Then, this man whom I had never heard say anything bad about anyone, said, “When my colleague Eberhard publishes his commentary, I’ll have one to recommend.” He paused and then in almost a whisper continued, “Of course, we’ll all be dead by then.” Sadly, von Waldow never finished his commentary and most of his published writings available today are in German.  

In my second year of seminary, at the time I was studying Hebrew, there was campus debate over how frequently to have communion in chapel. Things became comically heated. As a semi-Calvinist, who leaned toward Zwingli, I found this debate to be fodder for satire. But the seminary President became concern and decided it should be discussed. He called for a community townhall. Faculty were ordered to attend. While von Waldow wasn’t happy about it, he followed orders. 

The day after the long campus meeting, von Waldow marched into Hebrew class, dropped his books on the table, and launched into a tirade about the spectacle. 

“That meeting yesterday was the damnest thing I’ve seen.” Then, contradicting himself, he continued, drawing on his war experiences. “I haven’t seen anything like that since the war. Imagine having a 25-ton tank stuck? We had one buried in mud up to the top of the tracks. You’ve never seen such a mess. But we had the Russians shooting at us and had to do something pretty damn fast. The was the only difference between that meeting yesterday and the war was the shooting. We needed someone shooting to have forced a decision so we could all go home.” 

Eberhard von Waldow would continue to teach at the seminary for a few years after I graduated. He died in 2007 at the age of 83. I’m glad to have known him and while I moved theologically away from his higher Biblical criticism as the only way to approach scripture, I am indebted to his teaching. I probably learned as much about preaching in his Hebrew exegesis class as I did in homiletics. I am also in debt to his story, for it could have gone another way. A man of war became a man of peace. I wish he was here to discuss what’s going on in Ukraine, for there was a time in the 1940s, when he commanded 12 tanks across that terrain. 

Looking back, it’s interesting that von Waldow wasn’t the only faculty member to have served in the German army. Dr. Mauser, our dean, served for a brief period in the German army and I should at some point write about my experiences with him. 

Professor von Walton from

While the memories above are from me, I found these articles on the internet to be useful and insightful:

Bill Steigerward, “The Nazi Take Commander who became an American Peacenik” (this article originally appeared in Pittsburgh newspaper in June, 1994).

Mark J. Englund-Kriger, “In Memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow”. A blog post from January 8, 2008.

A letter in Horizons in Biblical Theology.  January 1993, this letter was written at the time of von Waldow’s retirement. 

Obituary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 2007