Peter Heinegg, professor emeritus of English, is being remembered for his deep intellectual engagement, energetic lectures, sharp wit and compassion.
Heinegg, who retired in 2017 after 42 years at Union, passed away on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. He was 79.
He arrived at Union in 1976 to begin a teaching career that would cover an astonishing range of topics including major English authors, Yiddish literature, Italian Renaissance literature and the Bible. He led terms abroad in Greece and Italy. To every course, he brought his energy and wide-ranging interests to get students to consider the big idea.
He received the Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2000 after one student nominator wrote, “Taking a Heinegg class is like getting a drink from a fire hydrant. His classroom is not only an intensely interesting place, but a place where you get a real sense that something is truly at stake in the act of learning, that one is not merely dealing with facts but also ideas that matter.”
An animated lecturer, he often paced the room making sweeping gestures. A student once said, “Many lectures ended with his long hair jutting in every direction as though a storm had come through.”
Of his teaching, Heinegg wrote, “I feel a prophetic enthusiasm and I hope it’s catching. I also like the prophet’s role because it lets me dive into riffs, tirades and rhetorical spritzes; to be defiant and outrageous. American culture needs constant satirical needling, so I never stop reminding students what a crazy world we live in.”
He eschewed cooperative learning, calling it “folly” to have students lead one another. He wrote, “I’m in charge here … and in the meantime I make them take off those dumb baseball hats.”
He described himself as a “classic first born” who was “naturally inclined to be a professional nurturer and father figure.” He had a “devout religious upbringing” and spent seven years in Jesuit seminaries before going to graduate school.
Heinegg’s recent publications include: Dim and Dimmer: Prospects for a New Enlightenment (R&L Publishers, 2014); a contribution to Anthology of World Religions (Norton, 2014); and Bitter Scrolls: Sexist Poison in the Canon (University Press of America, 2010). For a complete list, visit here.
He was a regular book reviewer for Cross Currents and America. He also translated more than 50 books. For several years in the late 1980s, he penned regular op-eds in the Schenectady Gazette, many of which he described as pessimistic takes on American culture.
He served at Union as department chair, member of the Faculty Review Board and member of the committee that formed Religious Studies.
He earned his B.A. in 1965 from Fordham University, and his Ph.D. in 1971 from Harvard University.
The Heinegg home, just a few blocks east of campus, was frequented by students and colleagues who came to share meals and lively discussions. A number of faculty lived with the family over the years. Heinegg often biked and walked back and forth to campus. During many of his walks, he would read a book.
Heinegg spent his last night reading German poetry and watching films from Iran, said his wife, Rosie. In his last night, he also remarked to his wife that he had done exactly what he’d always wanted in life. “All he ever wanted was to read, write and teach literature,” she said. “He was an academic’s academic.”
Survivors include his wife, Rosemarie, who was an adjunct lecturer at Union who taught psychology and first-year preceptorial; son, Max ’95; and daughter, Alexandra.
Calling hours will be Sunday, June 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Jones Funeral Home, 1503 Union Street, Schenectady. After calling hours, there will be a remembrance celebration at the Heinegg home at 1157 Glenwood Boulevard, Schenectady, 12308.
To read the family obituary, please visit here.