Walter F. W. Lohnes died Feb. 8 in Sunnyvale after a long illness. The Stanford professor emeritus of German was 87.

Walter Lohnes portrait

Walter F. W. Lohnes is remembered as a ‘born teacher’ who loved teaching about the language and culture of his native Germany. (Image credit: Stanford News Service archives)

By incorporating elements of the culture of German-speaking countries and the latest linguistic research in English and German into language instruction, Lohnes had a formative influence on the teaching of German and other languages in this country.

During his 34 years at Stanford, Lohnes taught courses in literature, language and style, applied linguistics, culture studies and methods of teaching German.

He was an early proponent of changing the traditional focus of the Department of German from solely literature and language to also including broad cultural studies. The department was consequently renamed the Department of German Studies in 1970. While he served as department chair from 1973 to 1979, German Studies was the largest foreign language department at Stanford, teaching more than 1,500 students a year and producing more PhDs in German than any other university in the United States.

“Lohnes was a born teacher,” said William E. Petig, a senior lecturer in German at Stanford and one of his former students. “It was evident from the first day of class that he loved teaching both the language and culture of Germany. He had an amazing ability to come up with the perfect example to illustrate a linguistic structure or a cultural aspect of German.”

Lohnes’ first-year German language textbook, German: A Structural Approach, written with F. W. Strothmann (1967) and in a later edition with Petig (1989), was adopted by more than 600 colleges and universities around the world and fundamentally changed how German was taught.

Introducing new elements that reflected how languages are actually used by native speakers, as well as contrastive culture studies, the text became the standard by which all beginning German textbooks continue to be measured. Lohnes’ innovative use of illustrations from newspapers and magazines has been imitated by numerous foreign language texts.

Led effort for AP exam

In 1956 Lohnes and Harlan P. Hanson, the head of Advanced Standing at Harvard, spearheaded the creation of the first Advanced Placement exam in German literature. As a consultant for Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., Lohnes recorded German testing materials for many years. Hundreds of students and teachers of German “instantly recognized his distinctive baritone voice when they happened to meet him,” said Petig.

As a member of the Modern Language Association testing committee in the late 1960s, Lohnes helped to design standardized exams for undergraduate German majors, advanced students and teachers.

Through his initiatives, visiting professorships from Germany, Austria and Switzerland were established at Stanford. The university received one of the two Austrian Bicentennial gifts to the United States to establish the Austrian chair. Since 1977 it has brought 33 distinguished professors from Austria to teach at Stanford in various departments.

Lohnes also established and named the first German theme house at Stanford, Haus Mitteleuropa, and for many years he served as its faculty adviser. Every fall, he taught his German Culture course there.

He taught repeatedly at the overseas studies centers in Germany and Austria and held visiting appointments at Middlebury College in Vermont and at the University of Vienna. In 1992 he was asked to speak at Dokkyo University in Tokyo, and in recognition of his contributions to the field of German linguistics, he was invited to present a series of lectures at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris. He retired as a full professor of German at Stanford in 1995.

Lohnes was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989, the Goldenes Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich in 1991 and the Outstanding German Educator Award by the American Association of Teachers of German in 1993.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany

Lohnes was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1925, and received his gymnasium education at the Wöhlerschule in Frankfurt. At the age of 17 he was drafted into the German army and served on the Eastern Front until shortly before the end of the war in 1945. In fall 1946 he began his studies in medieval history, German literature and ethnography at the University of Frankfurt. The recently reopened university was still largely in ruins, and every week students were required to spend a certain number of hours cleaning up debris.

In the fall of 1948 Lohnes came to the United States as one of the first German exchange students after the war. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University and perfected his English by speaking with the resident GIs. The following year he was hired as an instructor of German at the University of Missouri-Columbia. From 1951 to 1961 he taught German at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he built up one of the most successful and nationally recognized secondary school German programs in the United States.

His introductory course in German literature for more advanced Andover seniors became the precursor for Advanced Placement German courses in American high school programs. In 1961 he received his doctorate in German literature from Harvard with a dissertation on Thomas Mann, and in the fall of that year was hired as an assistant professor at Stanford.

Lohnes is survived by his wife of 63 years, Claire (Shane) Lohnes of Los Altos; two daughters, Kristen Johnson of Palo Alto and Claudia Lohnes of Cupertino; a son, Peter Lohnes of Seattle; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A memorial gathering will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club on May 12 from 3 to 6 p.m. Memorial gifts may be directed to Stanford/VA Alzheimer’s Research Center, c/o Pauline Luu (116F), Program Manager, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, 3801 Miranda Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94304.