Henry Janssen: An Appreciation

Henry JanssenOn Sunday, I attended a memorial service for Professor Emeritus Henry Janssen.  During his 60 years at San Diego State, Henry taught and learned from thousands of students, envisioned and created an honors community, and invested in our university in countless ways.  Henry received teaching awards, the Outstanding Faculty Award, the Mortarboard service award, a Monty and the Presidential Medallion, which I was honored to convey to him.  Our “last lecture” series is named after Henry.  This recitation of awards does not, however, do justice to Henry’s profound influence.

Henry grew up on a small farm outside of Lyons, Kan., during the years of the Dust Bowl – years that sorely tested America’s farming families and communities.  A member of a small close-knit community, his intellectual abilities – particularly his voracious reading – were recognized and supported early in life.  He attended the University of Oklahoma during the Depression and, during this period, his lifelong frugality developed further.  Henry went on to serve in the military in World War II.  During his Army training, he married Marge Trent, and their marriage lasted 59 years.  Supported by the GI Bill, Henry earned a Ph.D. at Cal and, in 1953, joined what was then known as San Diego State College.  On Sunday, we celebrated his 60 years of service at San Diego State.

Even in broad outline, Henry’s life is extraordinary, but there was so much more to Henry.  For me, his infectious spirit, his love of life, his (often times risqué) wit, stood out.  Henry told me a number of jokes over the last two years and, invariably, their content prohibited me from ever repeating them.  I can, however, share one story that reflects Henry’s spirit.  When they were boys, Henry and his brother, Jack, would entertain neighbors with a trapeze act in the loft of their barn.  In the finale, Henry would release from the trapeze, fly over the heads of the audience, and out the door of the loft.  Henry recounted that he enjoyed hearing the gasps of the audience as he flew out the loft door, knowing that a well-stocked hay wagon waited below to cushion his fall.

This story also reflects Henry’s focus on community – a fundamental aspect of his life and legacy.  Whether he was entertaining his many friends, teaching and learning with students, advocating for the Honors College, or visiting with alumni, Henry was building community.  He was building community and supporting others. This was a central theme of his life and a powerful part of his legacy.

We live in a time of great disruption in higher education, and many question the fundamental purposes and practices of our university.  In this environment, Henry’s life and legacy remind us that the fundamental tie between a supportive community and the personal, intellectual, professional and moral development of the community’s members is the essence of all great universities.

Henry understood that it was critical to create small communities within our larger campus, and this is what he did for 60 years at San Diego State.  He created communities of learning, of mutual support, of humor (and some mischief), and, like the Greek city-states he admired, communities of moral purpose – communities that asked questions about what it means to be a good person and a contributing member of society.

Henry’s last act was to donate $1 million to support the development of our Honors Program into an Honors College.  Through his support, we will continue to develop as the community that Henry admired and inspired.  I hope that each member of our community, as their means and capacity permits, will join Henry in supporting our Honors College. (Click here to support the Honors College.)

This year, for the first time in over 60 years, Henry will not be with us on campus this fall.  His spirit – a spirit focused on excellence and inquiry and moral purpose, with just a touch of mischief – will, however, be with us.

For this, Henry’s most lasting gift, we are all deeply, deeply grateful.

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Filed under College of Arts and Letters, Political Science, Uncategorized

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