In Memoriam: Ronald F. Thiemann (1946-2012)

In Memoriam: Ronald F. Thiemann (1946-2012)

Ronald F. Thiemann, who taught religion at Haverford from 1976 to 1986 and served as acting provost and acting president before becoming dean of the Harvard Divinity School, died Nov. 29 at age 66. Read more about his outstanding career here.

Ronald F. Thiemann (1946-2012)

Thiemann will be missed by all of his former students and colleagues. Please feel free to share your own thoughts and memories of the religion professor in the comments.


  1. Ron Thiemann’s passing reminds me of that quote that goes around – people will forget what you say and forget what you do, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.

    It’s hard for me to believe that Ron has died without my having a chance to say goodbye to him. I would like to think that I told him enough times how much he meant to me, but of course we never tell anyone that enough.

    Ron was a very charismatic teacher. He was energetic, so smart, and pushed us all the time to think. My friend Bill wrote that Ron taught him to think, to analyze, to really understand someone else’s argument before disagreeing. His classroom was charged, full of excitement and of the joy of learning. He was tough on us – quick to tell me on my papers when he thought I’d missed the mark or failed to understand the material. A 3.7 from him meant something. A 4.0 was an extremely happy day – one I did not see frequently!

    I took my first class with him in the spring of 1979. It was not an easy semester for me – a lot fell apart for me then – but in his class I felt whole and happy. He cared about us and he cared about what he was teaching. I fell in love with the material we were learning, with learning itself. And somehow that love stayed with me beyond that semester and into my religion major.

    I took my questions and my challenges to Ron. He was never diminished by a student’s challenges. He supported me through my learning and through the years that followed. We stayed in touch. I don’t know if he recommended me for rabbinical school but I know he knew I was there, and later I shared with him where I landed and what I was doing.

    I got from him that wonderful teachers love what they are learning, love their students and love seeing students grow. I got from him that religion matters, greatly, in our world.

    One of the courses I never took from him was one he always taught – Religion and the Third Reich. He was a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoffer, and he deeply believed that what we think and how we live matters.

    I’m so grateful that at age 17-20 I had such a caring, committed teacher.

  2. Gail -
    I thought you would like to know that HDS held a reception for Ron, his wife Beth, and their two daughters. Most of the HDS faculty attended as did about 25 of Ron’s doctoral and master’s students across the years. A fellow Haverfordian was in attendance: Amy Hollywood who now teaches at HDS. 10 people spoke; many, many others left him notes to read afterwards. Please know that he was able to hear how much he meant to his students.

  3. It was a highlight of my college experience to take Professor Thiemann’s course on Bonhoeffer.

  4. I’ll be forever grateful to Professor Thiemann for his role in resolving a rather contentious issue that arose in my final semester at Haverford. I was completing my major in history of religion at Bryn Mawr when my thesis adviser at BMC suddenly declared he wouldn’t participate in a joint HC-BMC thesis defense at HC. Professor Thiemann, who I think was in his 1st or 2nd year as a junior faculty member at Haverford, deftly resolved the matter, ending a period of considerable stress in my life. … Jay P. Goldman ’78

  5. I am saddened to read about Prof. Thiemann’s passing, yet still so appreciative that I was able to be his student in a couple of religion courses. He exhibited a piercing intellect, and he did such a good job to encourage and support student’s questions and contributions. He was not an “easy” grader, yet I always looked forward to his lengthy written responses to my papers that felt so true and helpful. During my senior year, in the fall of 1980, I was in a wonderfully small seminar course, Philosophy of Religion. In this class was a friend and fellow Lloyd suitemate, Roland Altherr. That fall Roland died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm. Prof. Thiemann responded with a deep degree of compassion and humanism that helped a lot. It is that blend of intellectual rigor and heartfelt compassion that I will remember and cherish.

  6. I am sitting here in my house, so devastated to read the news of the death of Pofessor Thiemann. Right next to me on my book shelf I have all of the course books from Religion in the Third Reich (which I took in 1980-81), including – as many of you have mentioned – Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have never forgotten all that he taught us – he was a kind, brilliant, insightful man, passionate about his student and about religion, which is not an easy topic. I have thought about him so many times over the years. He has helped me understand what kinds of things could lead to horrific tragedies like the Holocaust, and how to begin to prevent them (and perhaps his teachings and these books can help me begin to make sense of the latest tragedies our country is facing). Please know I am thinking of Ron Thiemann with much love and gratitude for having been in my life and at Haverford.

  7. I just learned of Professor Thiemann’s passing. My condolences to his family and friends. I regret never having told him that his “Religion in the Third Reich” was the most challenging, intellectually stimulating class I took as a student. Students prepared well for every class. They read the texts carefully because they cared so much about the outcome of the discussions to be held. Professor Thiemann taught the class sensitively and passionately, knowing that many of our religious traditions would be rightfully called into question for their active and passive failures during that horrific time. My wife and I included a reading from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison at our wedding in large part because of the impact of that class. I am indebted to Dr. Thiemann. He was a huge part of my Haverford experience, and he will be missed.

  8. When I think back now I am struck by the emotions I felt as a freshman meeting Ron Thiemann in September 1978. It filled me with hope to meet someone with such a powerful intellect, who cared about his students, and was dedicated to thinking through the hard questions while still defending his own point of view. Hope! He gave me hope. He was a sort of hero, fearlessly confronting the deep problems of evil, knowledge, meaning, truth. Thus began an intense relationship that centered on the intellect and its development but did not neglect the spirit.

    Ron Thiemann taught me how to think analytically. He taught me that in order to criticize a text (or a whole intellectual position), you first had to delve deeply into that position and understand it. Isn’t that really the basis for tolerance? You need to give the text a deep and fair reading. You have to get into the text, live it, try on the ideas, and see how they compare to your own point of view. Then you analyze the weaknesses deep inside the structure. It turns out it is the same with people. You need to see things from their point of view, from their world view, and understand it. Once you do that, tolerance develops because people are no longer “other” or foreign.

    What a tremendous contribution he made to my intellectual development. I am today in academic medicine, running a laboratory in Immunology– but the skill set enabling me to do this was developed at Haverford, and a big contribution to developing and homing my analytic skills was made by Ron. Now, when I write a paper or receive a grant or paper for review, I employ the same techniques that he taught.

    I have been in academia for so long that I take some of these skills for granted. However, I have also been in academia long enough to be able to look back and marvel at the personal involvement, the commitment he made to his students. He cared about us and our progress, he cared deeply. He was passionate about us. And, this may have been his greatest gift to us, the one that lasts. To have a teacher believe in you…to encourage you, yes to challenge you to excellence…it is priceless. Thank you Ron and may you rest in peace.

    Bill Ridgway Clss of 1982

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