Update April 24, 2013: Olaf has been added to the National Forest Service’s page on Hopewell Culture as a historical figure in Hopewell archaeology. I’m glad that his contribution to Ohio archaeology and specifically, Hopewell continues to be recognized.
July 29, 2008:
Dr. Olaf Prufer died yesterday after a long battle with cancer….so may begin any obituary that will be written.
I’ve been sitting here for awhile, swirling a two finger scotch, thinking about you. Here’s my toast to you, old man—
I know you’d hate this sort of shit, but I want to share why so many of us remember you affectionately while recognizing you were a hardass, often crass, and brutally honest.
You were cantankerous.
For me (and many of my classmates) you were a shining light in an otherwise grey Ohio landscape. Never really giving reassurance, but rather, showing approval by not ranting and raving. And oh, how you could rant. Christ, your vocabulary was brillant and smattering of profanties made us grin or drop our jaws in awe.
Baring your teeth, you’d pounce, spouting impassioned views. You didn’t care if we agreed, you put your opinions out there, and often times with an intimidating force that many would not challenge. Some of us learned you would tolerate the challenge and often times, respect the challenger.
Your world view and travels intrigued me. With humor, with passion, you helped us make sense of a senseless world. Regardless of topic, I listened to you. You taught me to be a straight talker “no bullshit, Garrison” you’d say wagging a finger at me, demanding I look at a situation without sentimentality, political leanings, etc. Thank you.
You taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (Honors), my first anthropology class. From day one, you made a striking impression. You were lecturing on those in antiquity who could be considered the earliest anthropologists and you said in that accent of yours… “You know, all those motherfuckers.” Those writing dropped their pencils and stared at you. You didn’t notice. Your back was to us, looking out on front campus, your hands cramped into the front pockets of your black jeans, shoulders slouched over under your bomber’s jacket. The students whispered to each other “should we write down and all those motherfuckers?”
In a class on the history of anthropology, you once began a story, “So, my cat Fuckknuckles and I were going down a two track on the Navajo reservation with a case of Vienna sausages…” I don’t remember the rest except it involved the Navajo police.
In another lecture class, I’d chosen to write a series of research papers on famous women anthropologists (“No feminist bullshit, Garrison!”) A few minutes before I presented my second paper aloud, you informed me she had been your Harvard advisor. My heart sank; you were going to shred me. I began reading and you stopped me and offered me a gummy lifesavor. I stared at you completely stunned by your mischeviousness. You grinned and told me to continue. When I finished, you reached over and patted my hand.
Right before I graduated, you found me smoking a cigarette on the front steps of Lowry. I told you I’d embarassed myself during a recent gathering where Tim White was present. You grinned an told me a story. You’d driven all day with a bad cold to get to a conference. You arrived exhausted and feeling miserable. You got into an elevator with an older woman and the older woman helped you to your room and quite literally tucked you in. The next day, you walked into the conference and discovered to your horror that the woman who had put you to bed the night before was Margaret Mead.
And then, there are those films that were shown my senior year! I’d nearly forgotten about those. You were up in Lima (I believe) and had the graduate students digging in the snow and sleet and rain. And after hours, the cameras still rolled. Owen singing “Over the Rainbow” (thank goodness for silent film) and then, scene with you dancing. You came into the room towards the end of the film and laughed, shrugged your shoulders and shaked your hips to which we all roared.
These are some of the stories I recall and laugh outloud when I do. Oh, how you could light up a room just by walking in and opening your mouth. You were much more than antedotes and stories. An icon, a strong, brillant man who shared his knowledge willingly with his students. I am appreciative of every class, lecture, story, office hours (especially those later on held at the Tavern), and moment you spent investing in MY education. Your teachings provided a strong foundation for my LIFE and I am honored to have been your student.
Opie and I discussed today the sadness we feel knowing the world (and us) didn’t have the chance to understand a tenth of your genius. We are stunned that your incredible mind is gone. You wrote a lot and we’re hopeful that you wrote your memoirs. I will miss your laugh, your quick wit, and that grin of yours. Also, your seriousness. How you paced when you lectured, determined, tossing up your hands.
Thank you, Olaf. I pour a second scotch. May you have reached heaven half an hour before the Devil knew you were dead.
Postscript: The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made in his honor to the Ireland Cancer Center, University Hospitals, PO Box 74947, Cleveland, Ohio 44104- 9927, indicating that the gift is for Multiple Myeloma research.
Photos borrowed from Jason Prufer’s myspace page (black and white originally from Beacon Journal, 1978, i believe. The second one is from an anthro page out on the web… so Prufer… teeth barred and fist clenched).