Harold Scheub (1931-2019)

The following obituary is courtesy of Aaron R. Conklin, Senior University Relations Specialist with the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science.

Emeritus Professor Harold E. Scheub, the former Evjue-Bascom Professor of Humanities in the Department of African Languages and Literature (now the Department of African Cultural Studies) of the University of Wisconsin Madison, passed away on October 16, 2019. He was 88.

Scheub, who taught at UW-Madison for 43 years, was an unforgettable orator who used his unique gifts to bring the culture and stories of Africa to life for generations of UW students.  Former UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley famously referred to Scheub as “a legend in the history of this university.”

Professor Harold Scheub presents “The Art of the Storyteller” at the Engineers Without Borders 2009 International Conference held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/African Studies Program, UW-Madison)

“Professor Scheub inspired multiple generations of students with his voice and endless passion for storytelling,” says Eric Wilcots, interim dean of the College of Letters & Science. “He brought to life the spirit and wonder of the vast African culture and made it instantly meaningful to all of us. His belief in the universal power of storytelling was inspiring.

Scheub, who served as a jet mechanic during the Korean War, first fell in love with Africa after spending two years teaching in Uganda in the years leading up to that country’s independence. As part of his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, he returned to South Africa, where he spent four years walking 1,500 miles up and down the country’s eastern coast, toting the fifty pounds worth of recording and video equipment he used to record the poetry, tales and myths of the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swati and Sotho peoples in South Africa. Those stories would form the basis of Scheub’s signature African Storyteller course, a class he first began teaching in the 1970s.  More than 18,000 students experienced it over the course of his career.

“The Storyteller course made him famous locally, but the course was great because of the deeper Harold that lay behind it,” says Jim Delehanty, former associate director of the UW-Madison African Studies Program.  “The emphasis of the course was always on what was human, not merely what was African. This surprised and mightily impressed and gratified generation after generation of UW-Madison students who came in expecting special pleading on Africa’s behalf but left, to their surprise and great satisfaction, with a better understanding of their own lives and of the human condition.”

Scheub’s legacy lives on in a digital archive of his Storyteller lectures created by UW Libraries, including a video commemorating his career. The class, now taught in an online format, remains vastly popular among students. Matthew H. Brown, the assistant professor who took it over after Scheub’s retirement in 2013, says Scheub’s voice remains a key part of the experience. Copies of the collection were also provided to the University of Cape Town library in South Africa.

“So retirement and even death have not stopped him from leaving a mark on the lives of many students,” says Brown. “Many generations of Badgers will continue to think long and hard about the social exigencies that motivate storytellers and the various strategies they use to address them. His words and his deep insights into humanity will ring in many heads for many years to come.”

Scheub served as department chair three times during his career, and won several teaching, research and service awards.

Scheub was known for his distinctive and memorable teaching style. He routinely held forth to rooms of more than 500 students, but he also demanded promptness and rapt attention from them—those who arrived late to his classes were forced to listen through the locked door. Meg Skinner, one of Scheub’s former students who became his lifelong friend, noted that he never used teaching assistants, and corrected essays by hand, himself.

“Often, his comments exceeded the length of the essays,” she recalls.

Skinner also remembers her mentor and friend as an outspoken advocate for a wide range of causes (ending the Vietnam War, the fight against Apartheid and support for civil, including LGBTQ, rights) and an avid Badger football and basketball fan. His storytelling, she says, extended well beyond the bounds of African lore.

“He was once on a plane hijacked to Cuba, and returned with a story to tell,” she says.

Scheub’s passion and dedication inspired other students to carry on his tradition. Katrina Thompson, now chair of the Department of African Cultural Studies, took classes with Scheub when she was a graduate student. She joined the department the year he retired.

“I learned a great deal from him and will always remember his stories,” she says.

Morgan Weibel, another former Scheub student from rural Wisconsin, also followed Scheub into teaching—she took Scheub’s class in 2009 and is now a high school teacher.

“I’ve kept every exam, every handout and every note I took from Harold Scheub while scribbling furiously in Bascom Hall,” Weibel says. “He changed the way I thought about the world.  He knew, in his wisdom, that “all stories are the same.” It wasn’t he that made this connection. The connection was already in existence. He simply pointed out our shared humanity. All of our human experiences: birth, death, greed, fear, goodness and beauty are shared. Harold Scheub’s story is all of ours and in that way, it never ends.”

Please consider donating to the Professor Harold Scheub Great People Scholarship Fund.

If you would like to submit a memory about Professor Scheub, please do so here. Memories, stories, and quotations submitted by other members of our community are featured below.

Other Useful Links
Digital Collections: Harold E. Scheub

Commemorating Harold Scheub

The African Storyteller Online

Talking Peace Corps: Celebrating 50 Years of Peace Corps and the Wisconsin Idea

Quotes from Our Community

“I took his course, “Introduction to Folklore”, as one of my first classes to take in the States more than 30 years ago. Now I teach English at the University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan, and Prof. Scheub has been definitely the role model for me as not only devoted, but also idiosyncratic, unbound, and unaffected teacher. Above all, he was genuinely happy and grateful to be a teacher for us. I feel really fortunate to meet and learn from him at UW-Madison for those precious five years.” — Kiyo Sakamoto

“A half century. 1969. After A.C. Jordan’s passing, African Languages and Literature expanded. Harold was part of the expansion, so was I. Before our first semester together, we shared a ride to a conference – a ride more enjoyable, entertaining, informative than the conference.

Harold stands out as unique in my experience. Passionate. Firm convictions – but a vulnerability, I have seen him anxiously preparing for a lecture. A staunch supporter if he felt you were right, a vigorous opponent if he felt you were wrong. What other professor I have met or heard tell of or worked with could be hear from down the hall, arguing against students who had it wrong?

Bwana Shubu – as I tended to call him – is unique. He is inextricably part of African Languages and Literature, of African Studies, of UW.

I say again – Mungu amweke pema peponi – and in time I expect to hear from him and have with him some good arguments.” — Patrick Bennett

“Professor Scheub introduced me to African literature, stretched my imagination, and left a lasting impact in my life. He taught me that stories — regardless if they were written or oral, no matter where they came from or what language they were in — are similar at their core and uniquely human. Professor Scheub was my faculty sponsor for a Hilldale Fellowship when I was a sophomore, one of my masters thesis advisors, and spoke at my wedding. He truly cared for his students and was one of the most hardworking and dedicated teachers l know. Thank you, Professor Scheub, for your inspirations and your tireless teaching. I will never forget your energy (I still have my exams which you corrected by hand)and will always remember our many conversations. Rest in peace. 老師, 一路好走.” — Jonmi Koo

“Where to start with Prof Scheub? Probably the beginning, as I, like probably tens of thousands now, had my induction into oral histories and African oral tradition (world) in “The African Storyteller” class in 1986. A class I took because a friend said, “that looks interesting.” An understatement, as anyone who took his class knows. I was a Zoology major and needed “humanities” courses for my BSc. That one class almost, not quite, switched my whole undergraduate career. Although I stuck with my BSc, I went on to take Written Lit of Southern Africa, Theory of African Lit (taught by him and in much smaller and more intimate classes), and several African history courses. It was the height of Apartheid and activism and awareness. He opened up an entire world and awareness in me and so many others. His teaching style, engagement and expectation of excellence was and is inspiring. He began my lifelong interest and passion for Africa and Southern Africa in particular. Although I went on to become an Aquatic Ecologist (thank you Centre for Limnology), I have lived and worked in South Africa since 1995. Hamba kahle, Prof Scheub, go well.” — Denise Schael

“Harold Scheub: As I remembered him.

I was among the first group of graduate students who enrolled in the first course that Harold Scheub taught (African 401: Introduction to African Oral and Written Traditions) in the fall semester of 1970 in the then Department of African Literature and Languages, now Department of African Cultural Studies. He would hurriedly enter the class and start lecturing non-stop from notes that he had prepared. He would hurriedly exit the room at the end of the lecture. D

uring his captive presentations, I would remain spellbound marveling at the words emanating from his mouth; words such as Xhosa, Ntsomi, Izibongo, Inganekwane, Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, Core Cliché, Expansible Image, Image Sets, Parallel Image Sets, Synchronic Categories, etc. I would also marvel at his uttering of clicks—a characteristic of Southern African Languages–which left me in awe of his command of Xhosa. When we completed the first assignment, which was a paper, he provided typewritten feedback, single-spaced; sometimes the totality of his comments surpassed the length of the paper. Who would review a student’s paper with such rigor in order to provide high-quality feedback? Harold was the man.

Later on when I taught in the Department of African Languages and Literature and at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, I would use this technique to provide feedback to my students. My effort was not as heroic as Harold’s but, nevertheless, helpful. Harold was a stickler for precision and clarity. A student friend had written that the narrative he was analyzing conveyed a certain flavor — to which Harold observed, “what kind of flavor: vanilla, chocolate, cherry?” Once he even noted that the graduate students were not writing any better than the undergraduates, an observation that did not go over well with us graduates.

Harold certainly demanded a lot from his students, but when a student demonstrated that he/she could handle his demands, Harold would be the first to sing that student’s praise. I was grateful for the support I got from Harold during my dissertation process. He was instrumental in my obtaining funds for my Ph.D. field research in Sierra Leone and with counsel during the writing up of my dissertation. He would drop off articles or books at my apartment door for my attention. I went to Wisconsin to specialize in Modern African Literature. Because I met Harold, I ended up specializing in African Oral Narrative Traditions and Folklore.

Harold, you were an exceptional teacher, a great friend and mentor, and a fantastic human being, May your soul rest in perfect peace.”

-S. Modupe Broderick, Ph.D. Retired Foreign Service Officer (USAID) Silver Spring, Maryland

“I’ve kept every exam, every handout and every note I took from Harold Scheub while scribbling furiously in Bascom Hall. I’d never heard anything like the stories he would tell. As a young woman from rural Wisconsin, the world felt big for the first time. He was wheeled in on a wheel chair from time to time and yet would talk with more energy and more life than anyone. If a student showed up late or fell asleep he would tell them not to come in or he would walk out into the seats and wake the student up. He changed the way I thought about the world and I’m not being facetious. The way I have come to know Africa, its histories, diversity and complexity is due to him. I became a high school teacher and I use stories from The African Storyteller and I think about how the stories came to be in my possession. Through decades of time, perhaps hundreds of voices, into a recorder of the white explorer – the stories arrived. They came into contact with myself, the naive girl from rural Wisconsin, and will always be told. I think of him sitting in the soil, completely enthralled by a storyteller, and how he must not have had any idea he would connect such vastly different lives. And yet, he knew in his wisdom that “all stories are the same”. It wasn’t him that made this connection. The connection was already in existence. He simply pointed it out; our shared humanity. All of our human experiences: birth, death, greed, fear, goodness and beauty is shared. Harold Schueb’s story is all of ours and in that way never ends.” — Morgan Weibel

“I never met Harold Schueb in person. However, thanks to Matthew H. Brown who inherited some of Harold’s legacies. Matthew taught “The African Storyteller” which was the course for which Harold was known on the campus of The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Working as a Teaching Assistant assigned to Matthew, I was able to consume and devour the productive genius of Harold. I read, read again, and re-read Harold as I used the writings and discoveries of Harold to impact knowledge in the students assigned to me. Many thanks, to Harold, for his imperishable legacies. Many thanks to Matthew for keeping the flag flying while teaching the course which Harold institutionalized in the University.” — Pelumi Folajimi

He was a great teacher, and a seasoned researcher of African oral literature. His seminar classes taught me how to critically engage with African folklore and mythology. Before his retirement, he gave me two of his books–“Shadows: Deeper into Story” and “Trickster and Hero.” Adieu timeless Harold Scheub!” — Olusegun Soetan

I was in Professor Scheub’s classes in the mid 90s. African Storyteller, Hero and Trickster in African Oral Traditions, Literatures during the height of South African Apartheid (don’t remember the exact title), among other classes I don’t remember their titles, as part of the African Lang&Lit major. Some memories that I’ll never forget are: his bounding up 14 stories of stairs to get to office hours after class, his saying, “Oh hell people, am I making any sense?” during lectures, and his strong reaction to latecomers to class. Never be late to his classes! Of all the professors and classes, I learned the most from him. He made the biggest impact on my education. I was always pleasantly surprised when he remembered my name even after I had been done with his classes for awhile. He’d say, “hello Ms. Schuette.” I wish I had written to him to tell him what an impact he made on my life. Lala salama Profesa.” — Karen Schuette Umbreit

What an inspirational, kind, super generous and fun professor he was! I don’t remember the exact year, but it must have been 1993 Spring semester when I took his African Mythology course. It was in this class that Harold taught us about the poetics and aesthetics of African oral cultures in a fascinating way, which inspired me to do years of field research among the storytellers in East Africa. About a year after this class, when I walked with my backpack in the country side of northern Kenya and Uganda, collecting stories, I often remembered Harold’s enthusiasm in the classroom. When I crossed gullies, empty fields, and dry river beds, I remembered Harold telling us about his experiences of walking thousands of miles in Xhosa landscape. When I met certain storytellers, I would remember Harold telling us students about Nongeleni Masitatu Zenani, the great Xhosa storyteller with whom he met in the field and became friends with. I will miss Harold and my graduate years in Madison, Wisconsin.” — Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler

I never thought an “African Story Teller” could open my mind in ways I never imagined. Mesmerizing. I also loved when he went and stood next to a kid that was sleeping, and gave the lecture from there until he woke up. Priceless.” — Ed Neppl

Harold had a remarkably commanding voice. Sometimes he used it as testament to the storytelling masters he adored from his African research trips, and sometimes he belted out the deepest pain from his ample worldly experience. In all cases, he was unforgettable.

Once, he invited me into his office to help him do battle with his archnemesis, the Clunky Dell Computer. He was furious with the machine, which was old but in his eyes still a haunting, inscrutable technological mystery, a constant threat. Everytime I moved the mouse to try to update the software without deleting any of his work, he would bark out, “Wait a minute! Yiew! What? What are you doing? What do mean to do here? Do you have any understanding of what’s going on? I–I forbid you from opening that! Why is that icon pulasting? Yiew!” When I confided in him that I’d become as terrified of his wrath as he was of his computer, his kind eyes met mine, and we both enjoyed a moment of relief.

A year later, I sneaked into the last lecture Harold gave at UW. Sneaked, because I knew he preferred that colleagues not make a big deal about his teaching, and certainly not about his retirement, which he had resisted with all of his might. As always, he was spellbinding from the lectern. He wanted no applause, no real acknowledgment, but he got it anyway — from his undergraduate students, and from me, as I hid in the corner of the room so as not to embarass him.” — Samuel England

I never met Professor Scheub in person, but have been privileged in the last several weeks to audit an online version of his well-known undergraduate course, The African Storyteller, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The course includes lectures taped in Professor Scheub’s later years at the university, when he was at the end of his long career. However, his words were still enthusiastic and decisive, and his knowledge about his subject, formidable. And, although I am perhaps nearing retirement myself, he has already caused me to re-evaluate the myths and stories in my own life in ways both unexpected and profound. Thank you, Professor Scheub, for all you have done in bringing these stories and your thoughts about them to the world.” — Mary Pitassi