John J. Neumaier, seventh President of Minnesota State University Moorhead, died on May 30, 2016. MSUM will hold a moment of silence to remember the former President at 10 a.m. CST today, which is when his funeral begins.
Hans (John) Joseph Neumaier was born on October 30, 1921 in Frankfurt Germany. His mother —Leonore Schwarz — was First Contralto in the Frankfurt Opera. She was famous throughout Europe as a talented and passionate opera singer. His father Otto Neumaier was a businessman and veteran of two tours of duty in the trenches during World War I.
During his childhood, Neumaier enjoyed the cultural enlightenment of Frankfurt am Main and also had opportunities to study in Italy and Switzerland. He had a very close relationship with his mother (mutti) and father (poppi). However, he also was a witness to the growth of fascism under Adolph Hitler. In the early 1930s, Neumaier asked his father if he was worried about Adolph Hitler. Otto Neumaier responded that he wasn’t. “It was obvious that Hitler was nuts.”
In November of 1938, Neumaier watched from his parents’ apartment window while his nearby synagogue burned. The Nazis had ignited the fire with gasoline and fire brigades stood by – not to put the fire out, but to keep it from spreading to nearby houses. Synagogues across Germany burned that night and the windows of many Jewish owned businesses were broken and the businesses looted. That was Kristallnacht and many Jews were arrested the next day including Otto Neumaier who was fortunately released the following day because he did not fit the Nazi’s age criteria for being sent to a concentration camp.
In early 1939, Neumaier was invited to visit a family friend in England. He left Germany — taking care not to challenge the Gestapo guard who interviewed him as his train reached the German border. His father Otto had been able to immigrate to the United States several months earlier. It was expected that his mother Leonore would follow shortly. Sadly, his mother was not able to secure a timely entrance visa to the United States. In 1942, Leonore Schwarz Neumaier was deported from Frankfurt by the Gestapo. Later that year, Leonore Schwarz was murdered in the Nazi death camp Majdanek, near Lublin, Poland. Neumaier lost many other loved relatives and friends to the Holocaust.
In 1941, Neumaier arrived in the United States and moved to Minneapolis Minnesota. He lived with his father and worked at a manufacturing plant as a machinist. He enlisted in the military. While his wish was to return to fight in Europe, because of his language skills he was assigned to guard German prisoners of war in a garrison in Nebraska.
Neumaier married his first wife Virginia in 1944. After World War II, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. There he approached the Chair of the School of Law to inquire about becoming a lawyer. The Chair asked “Why are you interested in studying the law?” Neumaier responded that he was interested in justice. The Law School Chair responded: “My dear young man — if you are interested in justice, you are asking about the wrong field. You should study philosophy rather than law.”
Neumaier graduated magna cum laude from the University in 1948. He received a PhD in philosophy in 1953. His thesis focused upon Bertrand Russell. After working as a philosophy instructor at the University of Minnesota, Neumaier was hired in 1951 as a philosophy instructor at Hibbing Junior College in Northern Minnesota. He was a brilliant lecturer. A couple of years later, Neumaier was selected to be the Dean of the college — its primary executive officer. Neumaier has been credited with defining the role of Junior Colleges — later Community Colleges — in Minnesota.
By now, Neumaier had two children: Diane had been born in 1946 and Roger in 1949.
In 1958, Neumaier was hired as the president of Moorhead State College. In 1961, John and Virginia’s third child — John Fredric — was born.
During his ten years as Moorhead’s president, the college grew from a teacher’s education focus with less than a thousand students to a liberal arts college with more than five thousand students. A vast building program added eleven new buildings to the campus and the college’s academic reputation soared. Neumaier introduced a program that recruited minority students onto the campus that had historically been all white. He was never afraid to criticize and try to change the status quo. The Minneapolis Tribune noted this by referring to him regularly as “the controversial Dr. Neumaier”.
In 1968, Neumaier was selected to become president of the State University of New York at New Paltz. He completed the college’s transformation from a teachers college into a center for liberal arts and graduate studies. Enrollment increases were accompanied by pioneering initiatives to provide greater educational opportunities for African-Americans and other minorities. He expanded international education by establishing more than a dozen centers of overseas learning and created a more collegial and democratic campus atmosphere through governance procedures that emphasized faculty and student participation.
He also was a community leader in facing broader social challenges of the time. Neumaier successfully led the campus through an era of social unrest. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and aligned himself with students against those who supported the war. Neumaier always felt that justice was more important than tradition.
For the next twenty years, Neumaier was Professor of Social Philosophy at the State University of New York, Empire State College. He enjoyed working with students — teaching social philosophy and the concepts of justice during those years.
Neumaier spoke German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and some Portuguese. He served as a visiting professor in Russia and in Germany. He was also a brilliant public speaker who was not afraid to get to the heart of an issue. But in his speeches and in his relations with others, he always maintained a sense of humor. Neumaier claimed to be a man of few words — who used them often.
In 1969, Neumaier was divorced and later married Sally Fletcher Luther, a respected former Minnesota state legislator. Neumaier and Luther’s marriage was a source of delight for each of them. They studied and read together, enjoyed opera and many diverse cultural opportunities. They traveled together across Europe and the United States. Neumaier regularly told family and friends that he was “besotted with Sally”. Sally Luther passed away in February of 2015. During the remaining sixteen months of his life, Neumaier regularly told others how much he missed her joyous and intelligent company.
Neumaier loved and was very proud of his three children as he was of his six grandchildren and his great grandson. Neumaier also loved Sally’s three children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Neumaier spent his retirement years in Mount Dora, Florida. John and Sally were well known in Mount Dora for their stylish and joyful presence. They swam together on a daily basis until a month before her death. They enjoyed a marvelous, splendid life together. They read the New York Times each day, watched national television news with the avid attention of sports fans and reveled in movies with happy endings. Neumaier enjoyed Mount Dora and his wonderful neighbors who became his friends.
John Neumaier experienced the horrible devastation of Nazi Germany as a young boy. But his response to the hate of fascism — to the murder of his mother and many other loved ones — was to become an educator and to try to help people communicate with one another. He taught them to understand differences rather than fear or denigrate them. Dr. John J. Neumaier was sad about human beings’ tendency to treat one another poorly. But in his life, he lived with respect for others and became an activist supporting just social causes. He always found a way to pursue justice.
Neumaier remained active until his final days and was mentally and intellectually sharp until death. He passed away on May 30, 2016.
Additional reflections from Dr. Neumaier can be found here.
Funeral arrangements are being made by Allen J. Harden Funeral Home, Mount Dora, Fla.
The service is scheduled for June 3, 2016 in Florida.