Katharina Dulckeit remembers flying into Indianapolis for her job interview at Butler and seeing a tractor on display in the airport. Then she arrived at the University to find that “everyone was married” (she was divorced) and diversity was lacking in the all-male Philosophy Department and on campus.
Coming from California, she had hoped for something a little more cosmopolitan. But she was offered the position teaching philosophy and, needing to provide for her two young daughters, she accepted.
Over the years, she said, it got better. She made lifelong friends among the faculty (“They made my life here possible”), met her second husband at an event in Jordan Hall, and did everything she could to give students “a rich, unforgettable, mind-blowing, and profound learning experience.”
And now, as she finishes her teaching career at the same place where she started 32 years ago, Dulckeit looks back on her time at Butler with fondness.
“When I accepted this job,” she said, “my friends in California said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’re going where?’ I said, ‘You’re all elitists. There are nice people everywhere.’”
Dulckeit grew up in “devastated, bombed out” Kiel, Germany, in the aftermath of World War II. In a highly regarded “last lecture” that she delivered to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she told the story of climbing into a bomb crater on a dare to retrieve a glove when she was a little girl. She also remembered another child getting killed trying to do the same thing.
“There was ordnance lying all around the city,” she said. “What I saw instilled in me this lifelong passion for justice and equality.”
Her father was a professor of jurisprudence who refused to join the Nazi party. He was sent away for six years and did whatever he could to sabotage their efforts. (“It’s fortunately documented by third parties, so it’s not just wishful thinking in the family.”)
“I told that story not to get sympathy, but to paint a picture of the consequences of letting a dictator take power,” she said.
Her father died of cancer when she was 7, and the family moved to Munich. As she approached her teen years, life in Germany became much more normalized, but “the thoughts of murder and horror receded, but never very far.”
Dulckeit left Germany at 18, married an American, and moved to California. During 20 years in California, she had two children, got divorced, and advanced from junior college to doctorate in philosophy, which she earned at University of California, Davis.
She had planned to study “anything but philosophy,” and certainly anything but the work of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, about whom both of her parents had written.
“But I took one class (in junior college) because I thought I want to at least know what it’s about,” she said.
She ended up hooked.
Dulckeit taught a variety of philosophy and core curriculum courses at Butler, including a seminar in Hegel and a class called Marginalized in America, and worked to develop a more diverse curriculum across the University. She twice served as philosophy department chair; co-founded The Collaborative for Critical Inquiry into Gender, Race, and Sexuality; helped launch the Women’s Caucus; and directed the Gender Studies program.
“I have never been somebody everybody loves,” she said, “because I always say what I think.”
But those who love her, LOVE her. Pamela Tinkham ’89, who was a Dance major at Butler, just sent Dulckeit a copy of her new book, Healing Trauma from the Inside Out: Practices from the East and West, along with a note thanking her “for believing in me before I believed in myself.”
“I grew up being told that I was ‘the pretty one’ and my sister was ‘the smart one,’” Tinkham said in an email. “During Katharina’s class, we spoke after class a few times and she told me how smart she thought I was. That was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and it really changed my life.”
Dulckeit’s friends on the faculty describe her as “fearless,” “compassionate,” “ahead of her time,” “progressive,” and “a fierce advocate who has a deep well of sympathy for what other people are thinking and the experiences they’ve had.” Professor of Spanish Terri Carney said Dulckeit has inspired two generations of Butler University women professors.
“When I got here in 1995, I think Katharina was my only role model for progressive, radical politics,” she said. “She was chair of her department and I remember her at this big faculty meeting telling (then-President) Geoff Bannister off. And Geoff loved her. And I thought, ‘Who is this woman? If she exists here, then maybe there’s a place for me.’ I can’t overstate Katharina’s impact on me.”
In retirement, Dulckeit and husband Keni Washington, a musician and Managing Director of the alternative-energy company Earth-Solar Technologies Corp., plan to travel. She will write and study—“I would love to study physics if I had time”—and enjoy what she calls her “new adventure.”
“I’m happy with myself and with my age and what I’ve learned,” said Dulckeit, who keeps youthful purple streaks in her hair but proudly acknowledges being 70. “As you get older, you get a different handle on things. I am so very comfortable in my skin. I don’t feel old. I don’t feel like I’m done. I have a lot of reading and writing to do and a lot of beauty to see and a lot of traveling to do.”
And as for her decision to come to Indiana, Dulckeit said she likes the way it worked out.
“I’ve been happy,” she said, “but I do have an unreasonable longing for the ocean and lakes and mountains and beauty. I’m one of those people who needs beauty in their surroundings to feel joy.”