Remembering Mark R.V. Southern Middlebury College mourns the loss of a beloved professor

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Jason F. Siegel

On March 16, the College was shocked by the unexpected passing of beloved Visiting Assistant Professor of German and Linguistics Mark R.V. Southern. He died on Wednesday afternoon in his home at age 45.

The Office of the President sent out several messages over the course of the weekend, starting with an all-campus e-mail containing minimal information about the death and announcing that College Chaplain Laurie Jordan ’79 and Assistant Professor of Psychology and licensed clinical psychologist Augustus Jordan were on hand in the Chateau Grand Salon to provide emotional support to students, faculty and staff. The College also held a memorial service yesterday afternoon in Mead Chapel.

Popular almost from the instant he arrived on campus, Southern soon achieved near rock-star status among students for his seemingly unlimited depth of knowledge and effervescent personality. He inspired scores of students to declare Independent Scholar majors in linguistics, and he was recently involved in an effort to establish a linguistics minor. He also served as an advisor to many German students and supervised several independent projects, always eager to serve as a second theses reader.

Born in Cambridge, England and a graduate of the prestigious Eton School and both Oxford and Princeton Universities, Southern was a well-respected scholar in historical linguistics, especially among Germanic, Romance and Classic languages. He worked with 26 languages and was able to make connections between Old Norse, Sanskrit and French with little effort. His courses regularly filled to more than twice their initial capacity, as students flocked to his lectures. He often displayed so much energy that he would end a class with chalk and sweat all over his clothes, a trademark that endeared him to his students. Said Edward Hinson ‘05.5, “Mark’s lectures bubbled with excitement even at 8 a.m.” Hannah Washington ’08 added, “He always seemed excited by every new perspective that students could offer.”

As a scholar, his research interests covered all areas of the humanities, including classics, comparative religion and anthropological linguistics. He had recently published a book, “Contagious Couplings: Yiddish shm- and the Contact-Driven Transmission of Expressives,” and his “History of the German Language” is also under consideration at Cambridge University Press, which has a series of language histories. One of his many forays outside linguistics, however, was as a judge for the Alison Fraker Prize, for which he had offered his services for the last two years. Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program Sujata Moorti said, “Mark was always the first to volunteer to read the essays and was always very meticulous in his assessments of the interdisciplinary array of texts. Undertaking this additional task in his already busy schedule is a striking example of his commitment to fostering an intellectual community.”

Yet more than for his expansive base of knowledge, Southern was known for being a genuine friend to his students. A former research assistant, Laura Reid ‘04.5 said, “Although Mark’s professional life undeniably reflected work of the highest and most admirable caliber, his personality and unique virtues were what made him so exemplary as a scholar, friend and human being.”

Senior Janet Fung said of him, “Anyone who met him was amazed by how many languages he spoke and his vast knowledge of the world, but I think what most inspired people was how humble Mark was.”

His death sent shockwaves through the faculty as well. Visiting Assistant Professor of German Johanna Stimmel said, “I still really cannot believe what happened, and definitely will never understand how someone so lively and full of energy could just disappear from this earth.”

Dean of the Curriculum Carol Rifelj said, “He did so many things for others, and he considered that perfectly normal, yet any little thing one did for him was received as though it was special.”

Beyond being a good friend and a knowledgeable coworker, Southern served as an inspiration to those around him. Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Natasha Chang said of him, “Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about Mark – for his students and many of his colleagues alike – was his idealism. It was contagious and truly inspirational. It was a reminder that our beliefs, whatever they may be, must be founded in ideals that go far beyond what is possible.”

Outside the College, Southern was an important member of the town’s Jewish community as well. Although he himself had never converted to Judaism, he fully and eagerly participated in activities. At the University of Texas-Austin, where he had been a professor immediately prior to coming to Middlebury, he had enjoyed a similiar reputation, winning prizes for excellence in teaching on two occasions. He also was included in “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.”

Indeed, one of his students, Todd Krause, was inspired so much by Southern that after he finished his doctorate in physics, he began to work as a linguist at the University of Texas. He has now come to Middlebury to finish Southern’s linguistics course. Since he did not feel comfortable offering the German section, a new course on German culture is being arranged for students who need German credit, while the rest of the class has been converted to pass/fail status. Lori Sundberg, who is finishing a doctorate in German at the University of Pennsylvania, will take over his introductory German courses.

Southern is survived by his wife, Lauri London, his two daughters, Maya, 9, and Zara, 7, his father Eric Southern, his sister Jane Southern, and nieces Eleanor, Matilda and Julia. An education fund has been established for the couple’s children through Havurah and the National Bank of Middlebury. Checks may be sent to the “Maya and Zara London-Southern Education Fund” care of Havurah, P.O. Box 823, Middlebury, Vt., 05753.

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Remembering Mark R.V. Southern Middlebury College mourns the loss of a beloved professor