Professor of Modern Languages/Literatures Retires
by Kim Johnson
May 14, 2008
Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures John Byrnes grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with New York City nearly at his doorstep. He received his B.A. in German from St. Peter’s College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in German from Johns Hopkins University.
After spending six years at Fordham University and ten years at Idaho State University he was looking for a place he could serve as department chair. At the prompting of a colleague from Idaho State University, he sought out Wabash where he has held the title of full professor since his first year at the College in 1987. Byrnes also served as the Department Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures from 1987 to July 2000. Byrnes taught both German and French during his tenure at Wabash.
In addition to serving as the department chair for 13 years, Byrnes chaired the committee responsible for renovating the former Yandes Library into the current Detchon Center for Modern Languages and International Studies.
Byrnes is also credited with starting the international immersion program at Wabash where he led at least six groups of students through Germany since the program’s inception less than a decade ago.
"Like a lot of good ideas around here, it came from a student – a student from Germany, Bastian Wonschik ’00," Byrnes recalled. "He came to me and said the German Academic Exchange Service is offering some grants for study trips, why don’t you do that? I said, ‘Okay, that’s not a bad idea.’ We applied for the grant. We did not get the grant but we figured out a way to do it on our own.
"I taught a course called Germany Since 1939 and that was the first immersion trip to Berlin."
Byrnes is not surprised to see how much the Immersion Learning program at Wabash has grown. "It’s an excellent experience for students. It’s a lot of work for faculty. It’s not a vacation. You’re responsible for 15 or so students and things can and sometimes do go wrong. But it’s worthwhile because the students get so much out of it. That’s why I did it."
After 40 years of teaching, speaking, and experiencing the French and German languages, he does not see them as "foreign" languages any more. "I enjoy being able to go to Germany and France and function in another culture, not be an outsider, not have people realize – at least not immediately – that I’m a foreigner" Byrnes said.
"It’s very satisfying to be able to speak another language. It’s a very enjoyable thing in and of itself. It’s part of my personality. Both my languages are part of my way of life. I can’t imagine living in only one language. That’s just not a possibility any more."
With retirement around the corner, Byrnes has been too busy to plan much for retirement yet, but anticipates traveling to Berlin soon and perhaps one day to Russia. He also wants to continue language study by learning Russian and sharpening his knowledge of Italian.
Byrnes and his wife live in Crawfordsville. They have two children and two grandchildren.