German professor uses unique perspective to shape lives

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Hans-Wilhelm Kelling slept on a provisional bed in the kitchen, because the other rooms of the apartment were damaged. Every night he slept with his clothes on, if he slept at all. When the sirens sounded, he and his younger sister ran with their mother to a shelter. The Kelling family always wondered if their apartment would still be standing when they returned home. During World War II, their hometown of Bremen, Germany, was bombed around the clock.

“It was terrible at the time,” Kelling said. “But looking back, it’s something that formed me and it’s an important part of my life.”

BYU professor Hans-Wilhelm Kelling grew up in Germany during WWII. (Photo by The Universe)

Kelling’s life hasn’t been an easy one, but his experiences have shaped him. Now, as a professor of German at BYU, he has been shaping students’ lives since 1964.

For Kelling, World War II isn’t just a chapter in a history textbook. His father was an officer in the navy and a prisoner of war when the war ended. His mother was a special operator for the general staff in Bremen. Because of the bombing in Bremen, the boys’ school Kelling attended was evacuated to a small town in Saxony, a province in Germany. After three years there, the Russians approached and the boys were sent back home. Kelling said it was a difficult time.

“I saw a lot of destruction, a lot of death,” Kelling said. “I’m amazed that I turned out all right.”

As part of the Hitler Youth, he was indoctrinated in the ideas of national socialism. He was told that everything the Nazis and Hitler did was good. After the war, Kelling said he became a skeptic.

“One of the horrible experiences I had was when the war was over and I woke up, so to speak, and learned what we Germans had done,” he said. “I not only learned that our air forces had bombed London and civilians, our army had committed atrocities in Russia, and worst of all, our government had murdered 6 million Jews.”

He lost faith and belief in any system, until he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 16.

“I could believe in something again,” he said. “I think joining the Church was that turning point in my life when I could become a trusting person again.”

Through lots of hard work and a kind sponsor, Kelling came to the United States. His plan to study at BYU was put on hold when he served a mission in the Eastern States. He said he got to practice the language and learned to love the people.

“I learned to love the Americans and the American culture,” he said. “The Lord knew what I needed to learn and still knows what I need to learn.”

Later at BYU, Kelling learned to love a certain American in particular. He was impressed by a beautiful cheerleader, Joyce Coy, who was a friend of a friend.

“She reluctantly agreed to a date, we became friends and eventually, we fell in love,” he said sweetly.

They married in 1958 in the Salt Lake Temple. She died about four years ago.

“That was hard, because we did all things together, so it was tough,” Kelling said.

Another tough thing has been missing Germany. He said he misses the big city atmosphere, the cultural opportunities, the outdoor cafes, the pedestrian areas, the walks and the foods. Kelling also said he misses the direct German culture. When Germans ask how you are doing, you’re supposed to answer with how you really are doing.

Kelling has been teaching at BYU since 1964, except for three years in the ’70s when he served as the mission president of the Germany Munich Mission. He said teaching different courses and church callings keep life from becoming monotonous.

“I’m a Sunday School teacher,” he said. “I always wanted to teach and now I have that dream job.”

Kelling said he may do the same thing over and over again, but it’s different every time and every semester is something new.

“It’s exciting to meet new students all the time, and to be a mentor to them, to help them to grow,” he said.

One such student is Tessa Lush, a German major from Sandy. She said Kelling is one of her favorite professors.

“After taking his 301 class, he became something of a mentor to me and helped me find the CBYX program,” Lush said regarding a  study abroad and internship program. “Because of Dr. Kelling’s help and encouragement, I am finally living my dream: living, studying and working in Germany for a year.”

She said along with lots of German grammar, she also learned a sense of passion and determination from Kelling.

Michelle James, the department chair, agreed he is a wonderful mentor and teacher.

“He has been one of the most favorite and beloved teachers for decades,” James said. “It helps to have a native German perspective on culture and language learning.”

Christian Clement, a professor of German, said he appreciates Kelling as his own mentor and fellow teacher.

“Students like him a lot,” Clement said. “They think he is tough, but they respect him.”

Kelling said he thoroughly enjoys teaching and making a difference.

“I think that one of the most satisfying things of being a mentor is to see students grow and go on to great things,” he said. “To have had a small part of that is very, very exciting and wonderful.”

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