Emeritus professor John Kessler, who taught German language and literature to students and lessons in perseverance to all who saw him rally from a devastating mid-life stroke, died Oct. 19, 2022, at age 81.
Kessler immersed himself in German culture, developing a knowledge of its gifted writers, a love of its famous musical composers, and a taste for its legendary beer. After teaching mathematics to middle school students in suburban Cleveland, Kessler shifted his educational focus to foreign language, attending the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany, and earning his master’s and Ph.D. in German from the University of Texas at Austin.
Whether he spotlighted a verse from a Thomas Mann novel or a movement from a Ludwig van Beethoven sonata, he brought passion and enthusiasm to his classrooms. Kessler taught at Denison from 1969 to 2006. “I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I put a lot of pressure on myself academically,” says Michael Novak ’72, one of Kessler’s students. “He showed me the difference between learning to get As and learning for learning’s sake, and the joyful companionship this could bring between teacher and student.”
Kessler’s influence motivated Novak to become a professor, teaching history for 40 years at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I learned the power of kindness from ‘Herr Kessler,’” Novak says. “College students are vulnerable learners in my experience — even the ones who don’t seem to fit that profile. He was such a wonderful combination of intellectual brilliance, modesty, and kindness.”
Kessler never lost those traits despite suffering a massive stroke at age 38 that paralyzed portions of his body’s left side. He dealt with the debilitating effects of the stroke for more than 40 years, losing use of his left hand.
But the former track and field athlete at Ohio Wesleyan University didn’t allow the traumatic event to stop him from participating in the activities he enjoyed, says his son, David Kessler.
He traveled abroad frequently with his wife, Eloise DeZwarte. He continued to play tennis, squash, and racquetball. He rode his bike around Granville with a custom braking system equipped on the right side of the handlebars and served as a docent with the Granville Historical Society Museum.
“Never once did I hear him say, ‘I wish I still had the use of both hands,’” says his daughter, Mary Clare Kessler. “He tried his best to pick up where he left off before the stroke.”
Kessler adored music, everything from Wagner to Willie Nelson, and sang with his daughter in the Denison Concert Choir. He also enjoyed opera. According to family legend, Kessler traveled to Germany and purchased standing-room-only tickets to a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which can run 15 hours and is sometimes spread over four nights.
“He responded to music even as he was dying,” Mary Clare says. “When he heard songs that he recognized, you saw the lights turn on.”
Kessler is survived by his wife, a son and daughter from his first marriage, a granddaughter, and two stepsons.