Storied professor Scheub retires after 43 years

Long before there were cell phones, digital cameras or laptops, Harold Scheub lugged bulky tape recorders the size of small suitcases into the South African countryside, on the hunt for stories.

At a time when apartheid roused suspicions and ill will, Scheub (a white, 20-something doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) somehow got himself invited into rural homes. The storytellers sat before fires, in the center of rondoval-style dwellings. Family members encircled them, listening raptly. They spoke in Xhosa, a language that Scheub, a student of African languages and literature, was only beginning to understand.

“The first time I heard a story, I thought I had learned the wrong language,” Scheub says. “It washed over me like a flood. But I knew I couldn’t work with interpreters, not if I was going to engage with something as intimately important as the storytelling tradition.”

Scheub, the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Humanities in the Department of African Languages and Literature, retires this month after four decades of teaching at UW-Madison. Looking back on the 1960s, when he was a young man starting his quest, Scheub remembers feeling “wide open to the possibilities.”

“I was an outsider, being invited into these homes to hear these intensely personal stories,” he remembers. “I wasn’t prepared for any of it. But it was very, very exciting.”

Scheub forced himself to learn, not only the mechanics of the Xhosa language, but its cadences and colloquialisms, its versatilities and rhythms. He paid close attention to non-verbal cues, such as body language and tone. After about six months, he remembers, it all “began to flow.”

Harold Scheub has taught from a wheelchair in recent years, but his voice remained strong. (Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications)

Harold Scheub has taught from a wheelchair in recent years, but his voice remained strong. (Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications)

From then on, Scheub lived and breathed the stories of Africa, tramping more than 6,000 miles through South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho, recording poetry, tales, and myths — including epic stories that could last for days. He learned Swahili and Yoruba along the way. And he brought thousands of recordings back to UW-Madison (most are now part of the UW Digital Collections), where he introduced students to the oral traditions of Africa, and embarked on a teaching and writing career that illuminated an art as old as human existence.

“Harold Scheub has had a storied career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” says Professor Aliko Songolo, chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature. “He has garnered all manner of intra- and extra-mural awards and honors, has published some 30 books and more than 50 scholarly articles. Teaching for him is not a job, it is a calling.”

For a man who treasured his scholarly routine, retirement will not be easy. When he was not traveling overseas, Scheub was always at his desk in Van Hise Hall by 5:30 a.m.

“There was a certainty, a regularity to my life,” he says. “But now I am faced with momentous change. On the one hand, it’s exciting. On the other, it’s kind of scary.”

For years Scheub has taught his students about how the old African stories deal with such moments. Now he is facing one himself.

“There are all kinds of themes, but a recurring one is transformation,” he says. “The movement from one state of being to another — puberty, marriage, all the change that one goes through in one’s life — the stories explore all manner of transformation. Sometimes it’s an easy, positive change, and sometimes it’s very, very difficult.”

Humans, says Scheub, find comfort in stories that emphasize our similarity and make us feel that we are not alone. Since change is the very essence of living, it becomes central to the oral tradition, which emphasizes what life is all about.

Scheub joined the faculty in 1970 and served three times as chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature. He won numerous teaching, research and service awards and digitized about 2,300 hours of taped oral narratives, poems, histories and epics collected during his research trips among the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swati and Sotho peoples in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. The collection also includes thousands of photographs and hours of film.

“Teaching for him is not a job, it is a calling.”
— Aliko Songolo, chair, Department of African Languages and Literature

In his most popular course, African 210: The African Storyteller, Scheub introduced generations of students to the oral traditions of Africa. He extolled the rich languages but argued that stories transcended them. The storyteller, Scheub pointed out, uses traditional images, repetition, and other techniques to move the audience past the story’s surface of morals and ideas, and make connections to its past, present, and future. To guide the audience on this emotional journey is the storyteller’s art.

Students signed up for the class in droves, according to Songolo.

“Students sometimes waited years to get into his class,” former chancellor John Wiley told University Communications in a 2012 story about Scheub. “They all left with the feeling they had experienced something extraordinary.”

Scheub established the Harold Scheub Great People Scholarship in 2011 to support UW-Madison students with financial needs. On his 80th birthday in 2011, the department solicited contributions in his honor, and received more than 150 gifts from former students.

Earlier this year, a former student, Tim McConnell, wrote an in-depth story for the multimedia news website Narratively about Scheub’s remarkable career.

Scheub’s friends in Africa often puzzled over how he could be happy in a “landlocked university” so far from the cultures and traditions he loved. But Scheub always felt at home at UW-Madison.

“This university is so important, not just for the study of Africa, but for all world literatures and languages,” he says.

As for the next chapter, Scheub says he has plenty to keep him busy in terms of scholarly work. Beyond that, he doesn’t know. He feels he is entering unknown territory. But the world’s oldest stories remind him that others have walked here, too.

To view photos from Scheub’s final lecture at UW-Madison, see the slideshow below:

[slideshow_deploy id=’13906′]

“The Gatherer of Stories”
For Harold Scheub

Every day I drive past
The professor who walks to work,
Who walked for years
Through Africa, gathering
Stories from the tellers
In dusty villages — I know
The stories repeat in his head
As he walks toward a Midwestern
Lecture hall where hundreds
Of faces lean forward
At his opening gesture
As, one by one
Voices begin to speak
Their stories through him
The common rhythm of walking
Pacing every translated word —
See how the banyan tree
Has canopied the room.

— Robin Chapman, professor emerita, communication sciences and disorders, and poet

14 responses to “Storied professor Scheub retires after 43 years”

  1. Faith Lerner says:

    Professor Scheub came to my home in 2000 to tell stories at the surprise birthday party of my husband who had terminal cancer. It was a tremendous gift to my husband and to all who were there. Mr. Scheub has not only a tremendous gift for the story, but also a great and generous heart.

    I will always treasure that day, for as long as I live.

    Thank you and many blessings for a happy and enriching retirement!

  2. Michael Maguire says:

    I never had him in class. In fact, I’ve never met Professor Scheub. Yet, I feel as though I know him, through his storytelling. The first time I heard Harold Scheub’s storytelling was on Wisconsin Public Radio, on the program, “Conversations with Jean Feraca,” in the early ’90s. He shared some wisdom from his mastery of language, (I’m paraphrasing): “We are concerned about hate speech…on our campus and across the country. Let us err on the side of welcoming all speech, so as not to compromise one of the great tenets of our democracy (“free speech”). And, when we hear speech with which we disagree, and that we find offensive and disagreeable, let us challenge ourselves to counter it with better speech!”

    With eloquence, great care, and passion, he brought to life the lives of those he encountered…in Africa and throughout the world. Such a blessing to his students who were enrolled in one of his classes! Harold Scheub is an inspiration to all of us who desire to reach our students…with sincerity, with grace, and with the aplomb of a master storyteller…like him! – Michael Maguire, Faculty Associate, UW-Madison School of Human Ecology

  3. Sibongile Magwaza says:

    I feel so honored to have passed through his hands. He is a great professor and he loved his job with passion. I wish him well in his retirement.

  4. Grace says:

    Scheub is truly the best of the best. I’ll never forget getting to class an hour early just to get a front row seat, trying to learn Xhosa during one lecture, and hearing “No no, don’t come in!” whenever latecomers tried to open the door. So lucky to have been taught by someone with such an extraordinary mind.

  5. Yago Colás says:

    I just learned of this retirement from my niece a recent UW graduate who took Professor Scheub’s course. I myself took the course back in the early 80s. It was a powerful, transformative experience that shaped my subsequent course selections. Eventually, I became a literature professor myself.

    I didn’t realize Professor Scheub had recently been teaching from a wheelchair. One of my most vivid memories from when I took the class was of his physical presence, the way he would bound up the aisles of the lecture hall and then back down to hit stop or play on the tape player. I often think of that when I have taught my own lecture courses–I’ve been surprised by how hard it is for me, psychologically I mean, to move my body around on the stage, let alone up the aisles among the students. I know I could never reproduce his presence and charisma in the classroom, but my memories of his course inspire me to this day to do a little more, kinetically, than I might be comfortable with or otherwise able to do. Thanks to Professor Scheub for his expertise and example and best wishes to him in his retirement.

  6. Parker says:

    Scheub gave an address to the students at my SOAR five years ago. I’m a 5th year senior now, and I still remember the story.
    He talked about a student that worked a half hour past the exam time and brought his exam to the front. When he got there, the professor said the student would receive a failing grade. The student asked, “Do you know my name?” The teacher admitted a lack of such knowledge. The student slipped his exam into the middle of the pile and walked away.
    For a young freshmen to remember that story with such detail, the professor certainly had the ability to tell a story. I never took a class with Professor Scheub, but I’ll never forget the story he told to a room of frightened young minds embarking on the journey into higher education.

  7. Jon Arens says:

    I had the pleasure of having Harold Scheub give our new student address at SOAR the summer before my freshman year at UW-Madison. Obviously, he was an excellent speaker, but one story in particular has stuck with me.

    Prof. Scheub was administering a blue book test for an auditorium of students and time was running out. The bell sounded and the time to take the test was over. However, one student was still writing. Prof. Scheub gave the student a warning and said that the time was up and the test had to be turned in. The student continued to write. Prof. Scheub responded that the test had to turned in immediately or else the student would fail. The student continued to write, and about five minutes after the first warning, looked up and said he was done. Prof. Scheub said it did not matter anymore and that the student’s disregard for his prior warnings had rendered his test null and void. The student had failed the test. The student didn’t say anything and walked up to the front of the class where the blue books were being collected in a big pile. He took the pile, lifted half of it in the air, and threw his test into the middle. The student turned to Prof. Scheub, smiled, and left the lecture hall anonymously.

    Prof. Scheub said that the experience taught him that even at huge universities, individual intelligence still finds a way to shine through. They story brought the house down at SOAR and I immediately signed up for African Storyteller. Great teacher. Great class. Thankful to have met him.


    One of the Thankful Anonymous

  8. Steven Cybela, DVM says:

    Wow, I remember how popular his class was. The lecture hall was filled to capacity and beyond…students were sitting on the aisles and on the stage with Professor Scheub. And yet, with all those students (probably 500 or more), he individually hand-graded our (essay) exams – with commentary! Amazing! Not anyway related to my majors (BS in bacteriology, 1994; DVM, 1998), but a class and a professor I’ll never forget. Farewell, Professor Scheub!

  9. Deborah Foster says:

    Harold Scheub talks here about the transformative power of storytelling. I will not be alone in saying that his teaching has transformed thousands of lives and minds, mine among them. I salute him and I thank him and wish him a storied retirement.

  10. RIchard F says:

    Prof. Scheub, and his African Stroyteller, had such a profound impact on me an my undergrad years at UW. Although I enrolled in it as a ‘blow off’ course and easy credits, it taught me more than most other courses there; and it certainly was most impactful.

    To this day, I recall and use the learning: “Change results in chaos; out of chaos, comes order.”

    I once went to Scheubs office to meet with him and to try to determine my course grade after doing just so-so on an exam. We had a discussion, and he was reluctant to give me my grade as he had not yet completed all the grading. I left his office, walked down the stairs, and from the top of the staircase, Scheub yells, “Hey, Richard. You got an A.”

  11. K Brueske says:

    Prof. Scheub is a UW legend…thank you for your 40 years (!) of service and commmitment, you broke the mold. I had Prof Scheub for the “African Storyteller” in Bascom Hall back in the mid-80s, his enthusiasm and energy were unbounded. One word: kinetic! I too was surprised to see him in a wheel chair…he used to literally run up and down the big auditorium in Bascom (which was standing room only), arms flying, yelling at students, etc. Total theater. I also have vivid memories seeing him through University Heights either very early or very late in the day…always moving, always full of energy and life. Who will ever forget the lessons of the “Tstste Fly?” Harold shared with me only a few years ago that he was (as was I) former Air Force and served during the Korean War as a Jet Aircraft Mechanic. A true warrior and first class act all the way. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement!

  12. Dixie Beadle, PhD says:

    His African Mythology seminar was my all-time favorite class. The man is an icon and his retirement is a great loss for the student body. I have nothing but respect for this man as a scholar and a teacher.

  13. Mayowa says:

    Prof. Scheub is quite simply a legend!! I grew up hearing African stories and their deep lessons from my grannie and others, but when I got to Madison, the professor made me appreciate the depth of these stories more thank I ever did; he restored my faith in a seemingly arrogant western world that sometimes looks as if it’s incapable of understanding that it can learn lessons from other cultures. Professor Scheub is not Lincoln nor is he Mandela, but what he is, is a man who may have just brought America the gift of knowledge; knowledge that there is wisdom to be gleaned from all, and therefore, all cultures deserve respect. Congrats Professor, and good luck!!

  14. Sue says:

    I’ve worked for nearly 32 years in the Van Hise building, a few floors down from Harold’s office. Most of those years arriving around 6 a.m., I would meet Harold exiting the building, toting his dolly full of boxes of teaching materials. I was lucky enough to exchange greetings with him on a regular basis. I was not fortunate enough to ever sit in on his lectures, but know how much he is admired, and the impact he has made on campus! I have heard endless stories of his teaching, his devotion, his knowledge, his energy……… I wish him all the best on his new adventure!

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