Discovering America at Albright
by Ehrhardt I. Lang 57
ehrhardt lang
1957 2001

My first year at Albright was also my first year in America. It began in fall of 1953, just a few years after the end of World War II, and I was a German immigrant. It was the most difficult, and perhaps one of the most important, of the four years I would spend on the Reading campus.

I was not the usual German immigrant, but one that was “made in Japan,” born in Yokohama in 1934 of German missionary parents. I had attended only German schools there until the end of World War II, when suddenly these schools were no longer available, and I had to enroll in an English language international school. I had been speaking English for about seven years when I arrived at Albright.

But there was far more than language completion that I was destined to experience. In the America I encountered at Albright, everything was different. Some of this was wonderful, and some of it was puzzling. The colonial architecture of the college buildings impressed me greatly. I was amazed by the beauty of the campus in general. But a big mystery was connected to the social life of America and its college students. Nor did it help that Albright was located in the heart of “Pennsylvania Dutch” country. This was not the German culture and language I had learned at home or in school.

Coming from a structured Japanese society, full of ancient customs and expected decorum, I found many of the student traditions very strange, foremost among them the freshmen initiation rites and the fraternity hazings.

Perhaps the years of World War II in Japan had made me too serious to be able to assimilate all this playfulness into my new experience, at least at the start. It was a time of huge personal adjustment.

I will always be grateful for the ways in which students and professors went out of their way to make me feel at home, even if these efforts sometimes backfired or turned comical. On one such occasion Professor Samuel Shirk took me and another foreign student to see the Gettysburg battlefield. As he pointed out many of the historic sites, explaining their strategic significance in the context of the famous battle, I saw one sign at several locations, usually connected with a directional arrow. It said “Comfort Station.” When I asked the professor if this was where they took the wounded, he seemed to never stop laughing.

The College had a highly regarded chef in those days, Mr. Leonard Van Driel. Students, of course, had their typical complaints. For me, as an immigrant, this American food seemed to be the most consistently good food I had ever eaten.

eagle

I also worked in the dining hall. Washing dishes was something I had to get used to. I had never done this in Japan. When Mr. Van Driel noticed my reluctance to handle dirty dishes, he forcefully took my hands and put them in the “slop” and said, “This is the way we do it in America!” It was as important an American lesson as anything I learned in class.

I learned another important lesson when a professor asked me to define the word, “fear.” In my ignorance I defined it by citing various categories of things of which we tend to be afraid. The professor said my answer wasn’t too different from F.D.R.’s statement during World War II, when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The professor didn’t realize he was also giving me a history lesson. I had never heard that statement before since I had been on the other side of the conflict during those years.

Beginning with my sophomore year I began to enjoy college. The intramural softball league was an important instrument of this transition. I found out that sports, like music, can be a wonderful international language of social relationships, a principle no doubt recognized long ago by the Olympic games. By becoming a member of the only non-fraternity softball team in the league, I soon made many friends.

Sports interest had other advantages. It was a wonderful break from the many scholastic demands. Albright had Mike DePaul ’56, a Little All American, on its basketball team in those years. I can still feel the crowd’s excitement at seeing one of his patented long “set shots” go through the net against Temple University.

In the 1950s Albright’s connection to its sponsoring church, the Evangelical United Brethren denomination (now United Methodist), was very evident. Chapel attendance was required every week, and only a few absences were permitted, carefully charted through a system of assigned seats. These services were usually ecumenical in nature and often provided opportunity for cultural presentations by visiting artists and musical groups. Religion was also encouraged through the campus “Y” and the annual “Religion in Life Week,” for which well-known preachers or lecturers were invited.

Old Glory

Though I had come to America as an immigrant from a devoutly Christian background as a missionary’s son, Albright prepared me for becoming a citizen in the cultural and religious mix of the United States. I will always remember the good friendships I developed with several Jewish students on campus, one of whom was on my softball team, now a prominent physician. It struck me one day how remarkable this friendship was, considering that I was a German immigrant, and it had been less than eight years since the horrors of the Holocaust had become known to the world and to his people in particular.

It was during these same years that Albright’s celebrated Greek professor and scholar, Dr. Felix Wilbur Gingrich, published his monumental Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, which even today continues to be a standard reference work in English-language libraries throughout the world. Its publication brought national attention to the College and gave us an increased pride in our school.

One day an unexpected international dimension was also added to our college experience. A new student, Eustace Renner ’59, arrived on campus from Sierra Leone in western Africa,

one of the poorest nations of the world. He not only became one of the best-loved students at Albright, but also proved to be one of the most talented. After he won first place in the annual college speech contest, he was in constant demand as a speaker for civic groups and churches all over Berks County. His presence enriched our student life.

Coincidentally, some 30 years later, when my wife and I visited Sierra Leone on a church assignment, it was a surreal experience to meet this same former Albright student who was now a leader in his home country. He spent a day showing us the government buildings in Freetown, the capital, and giving us a scenic tour of the land, while recounting to us his country’s fascinating history once closely linked to the early American slave trade.

In 1959, on August 7, six years after my arrival in Reading, I became a citizen of the United States of America in Columbus, Ohio. What had begun as an experience of Albright’s unique, wonderful, and sometimes baffling way of saying “Welcome to America” had by this time been identified as a welcome to a much larger world.