Scholar Who Walked Through Southern Africa to Collect Tales Retires

Jeff MIller, U. of Wisconsin at Madison

Harold E. Scheub
April 14, 2014

Harold E. Scheub has built a career coaxing invitations from wary strangers. Lugging a rucksack and a bulky tape recorder through rural South Africa in the 1960s, the linguist knocked on people’s doors, hoping to record their stories. People took him for an agent of apartheid, but Mr. Scheub persisted, winning entry into huts where family members, as few as two and as many as 40, would be gathered around a storyteller.

Mr. Scheub, 82, who joined the department of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1970, collected nearly 10,000 ancient tales in southern Africa, in languages including Xhosa, Zulu, and Ndebele, preserving an oral tradition that other literature scholars had neglected. People he met as strangers came to treat him like a neighbor.

So Mr. Scheub didn’t hesitate when, in 2000, out of the blue, a clinical social worker from Madison who had heard the legendary professor speak at a conference invited him to her husband’s surprise 60th-birthday party. Faith Lerner’s husband had terminal cancer, and she hoped that Mr. Scheub would help recreate the feeling she and her husband treasured of telling stories around a campfire.

"He didn’t know us," Ms. Lerner says, "but he responded as if he did. That’s part of what made it so really touching for me."

This winter, after 43 years in the classroom, Mr. Scheub retired from teaching, in response to his own ill health. After using a wheelchair for years, he had his right leg amputated below the knee.

His retirement prompted a flood of appreciation from former colleagues and students. They celebrated Mr. Scheub for his old-fashioned discipline (latecomers to his lectures weren’t allowed in), his patience during office hours, and his ability to convert students into lifetime lovers of African folktales.

The University of Wisconsin is in the process of digitizing nearly 7,500 of the tales, the equivalent of 60 days of audio, only a fraction of which Mr. Scheub has translated into English. Every month, librarians add a new "Scheub batch" of recordings to the collection. With 48,124 minutes of audio left to upload, they expect to be finished by early 2015.

Alysia Mann Carey is one of more than 20,000 students who enrolled over the years in Mr. Scheub’s "The African Storyteller" course. She remembers the way his voice changed tone and his hands flew around the room.

"He would go into character," Ms. Mann Carey says. Both celebrating and dissecting the fables, "he taught a real appreciation for literature in a way that other disciplines may look down upon."

Mr. Scheub tried to teach his students to see beneath surface differences to "the poetry of the story," a rhythm he says can be heard in South African fables and American sitcoms alike.

Now largely bedridden in a rehabilitation facility where he has stayed during his recovery, Mr. Scheub notices the way stories are structured on the evening news. But he has not replaced the joy he took in performing and interpreting African tales before a rapt audience of students.

"I miss teaching," he says. "I’ll miss teaching the rest of my life."

Ms. Lerner remembers how Mr. Scheub swept through her living room like a longtime friend while he told his stories during her husband’s party. One was an African fable. Another was a politically correct version of "Little Red Riding Hood" that made the guests laugh. Despite the shadow of illness that hung over the party, her husband, who died a year later, was enchanted, she says.

Mr. Scheub’s performance reminded her of the storytellers she encountered in her early 20s, when she lived in India for a year.

"Just like the person who’d walk from village to village, he was right there," Ms. Lerner says. "It was like he came into the village of our little social circle."