University mourns professors

Students and faculty remember Harald Becker, Jean McKemie, and Edward Shirley


It was a sad start to the new school year as the university community mourned the loss of three veteran St. Edward’s professors, all of whom taught at the university for several decades. Edward Shirley, Jean McKemie and Harald Becker, all age 58, held a total of nearly 77 years of teaching at St. Edward’s combined. Shirley died unexpectedly on Aug. 15 while recovering from shoulder surgery; McKemie died Aug. 21 of breast cancer; Becker died Sept. 8 of pancreatic cancer.

Edward Shirley, a theologian, taught classes that ranged from topics such as meditation and religious studies to the infamous Christian Themes in Harry Potter course. Previously, he served as president of the Faculty Senate and was one of the first faculty advisors for PRIDE, an LGBTQ student organization on campus.

More than 500 people attended a memorial service for Shirley at the university on Aug. 25. Colleagues reported that former students traveled from as far as California for the event. Speakers included Father Lou Brusatti, Bishop John McCarthy and Shirley’s son, Matthew.

Described by colleagues as gregarious and curious, Shirley was known for his sense of humor, tendency to incorporate banjo playing into class lessons and popularity on Facebook.

“He was always playful. He brought together playfulness and rigor in ways I’ve never seen before,” said Steven Rodenborn, a professor of religious studies. Students loved being around him, even though he would take off points for not having a staple in the right spot.”

During the eulogy, Matthew Shirley talked about his father’s passion for teaching.

“My father told me he wasn’t trying to create the best theologians…he was trying to create better human beings. And this was the perfect place to do it,” Shirley said.

McKemie, professor of mathematics, joined the university community in 1988, where she made many of her professional achievements, including being named the first Brother Lucian Blersch Professor for her academic research. McKemie was also a highly sought-after member of university committees.

McKemie always put her students first, up until her last days teaching at St. Edward’s in Spring 2012.

Her students, colleagues, family members and friends remember McKemie as a voice of reason and a problem-solver in mathematics and in life.

“Jean offered advice when she was asked and seemed to know just how things should be,” said Cynthia Naples, a professor of mathematics and friend of McKemie’s.

A memorial service was held at the university on Sept. 8. McKemie’s brother, former doctoral student candidate Richard Mason, and professors in the School of Natural Sciences were among the speakers.

Outside of her academic and professional life, McKemie had many passions and talents. McKemie lived on a farm in Dale, Texas with her husband, Willy, where she loved the country life and considered it the balance to her mathematical mind. She volunteered at local farms and frequently shared fresh fruits and vegetables with her friends and family. McKemie was a singer/songwriter, an avid reader and even dabbled in skydiving in the 1970s.

Originally from Bavaria, Germany, Becker moved to Austin in the early 1970s to study at the University of Texas at Austin. He began teaching at St. Edward’s in 1986 and taught classes up until the end of the Fall 2011 semester.

During his time at St. Edward’s, Becker taught German language classes, the Literature and Philosophy section of Freshman Studies, and several courses in the Honors Program including German Nationalism and Parzival.

“He was so passionate about everything he taught. It was more than teaching for a grade, it was teaching to share knowledge,” said Kyle Strohschein, an alumni who graduated from the university in 2010. Strohschein changed his major from biology to English writing and rhetoric after taking Literature and Philosophy with Becker as a freshman.

Students remember Becker for his youthful personality, quirky stories, appreciation for the little things in life, and for being a Bruce Springsteen enthusiast.

“Every year, whether you liked it or not, you were going to celebrate Bruce Springsteen’s birthday in class,” said Yvonne Abercrombie, who graduated from the university in 2011.

Becker traveled to Taos, New Mexico nearly every summer to teach at the German Summer School, where he once served as Director of the language immersion program, and worked with students over the years who went on to teach English in Germany and Austria with Fulbright Scholarships.

“Harald was the backbone of the Fulbright pipeline on our campus,” said Caroline Morris, director of fellowships at St. Edward’s. “He urged all his students to apply to teach or study in other countries, to read the novel ‘The Ugly American,’ and to go abroad with curiosity, humility and respect for other cultures.”

Ten of 17 St. Edward’s students and alumni who were recipients of the Fulbright Award since 2004 taught English in Germany. Two other students went on to teach English in Austria.

“Harald was a close, inspiring mentor and guide for each of them,” Morris said.

Becker is survived by his mother, father, brother, and German Shepherd, Leica, named for the first dog to travel to space.

A rosary service will be held for Becker on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel. A memorial mass will take place at the Chapel on Saturday at 10:00 a.m.