In Memoriam: Horst Meyer

Guest post by Melanie Sturgeon, Librarian for Engineering, Physics, and Computer Science

I was terribly saddened to hear that Professor Horst Meyer passed away this weekend. As the physics librarian, I started working with Horst three years ago. I feel like I should say that I never met anyone like Horst, but that’s not entirely true. Horst reminded me very much of my Grandpa, Harry Goldberg. It wasn’t that Horst acted like a grandfather towards me. It was their personalities. They were of an age and lived through a time that is difficult for most of us to imagine. My Grandpa was part of what we in the U.S. call our “greatest generation.” I’m not sure what they were called in Europe, other than “survivors,” I suppose. But neither Horst nor my Grandpa were hardened by what they had been through. Instead, they were almost giddy with life and determined not only to enjoy every minute of it, but to make sure those around them did as well.

Horst Meyer in Duke Gardens. Photo by W. Ketterle, from his website at the Duke Physics Department.
Horst Meyer in Duke Gardens, undated. Photo by W. Ketterle, from his Duke Physics Department website.

Working with Horst was a joy. He was always passionate about whatever he was doing and thankful to be doing it. As a leading physicist at Duke for almost sixty years, Horst was a brilliant scholar and a very familiar face in the library. Many librarians worked with him over the years and also have stories about him. It was impossible to come away from an interaction with Horst without a positive memory or a story you wanted to share with someone.

When the latest Stephen Hawking book came in for him, he was so excited he literally bounced up and down when I gave it to him. Later, when Horst returned the book, he joked about how proud he was that he was able to understand part of what Hawking wrote. He did clarify that Hawking’s work was in a completely different field of physics than his, then quickly returned to joking and smiled about needing to be a genius to understand the whole book.

I’m sure many people did consider Horst a genius. But as a librarian, my takeaway was an appreciation for someone who obviously enjoyed learning so much. Every interaction with him left me smiling and thankful for the opportunity to work with him. It turned out that Horst was also thankful for those opportunities. A few years ago, he submitted a wonderful letter of appreciation along with a very generous donation to the Libraries for always supporting him. This is something Horst did frequently. If he cared about something, he wanted to help it grow and flourish. You can read more in the beautiful DukeToday article about his dedication to art, music, and the Duke Gardens. Here in the Libraries, we will be forever grateful that he wanted to help with our mission to preserve the past and educate the future. His memory will live on in the Libraries through his contributions to the History of Medicine Collections and our collection of rare materials on physics.

I am deeply grateful for my time with Horst, and I’m reminded of the lessons my Grandpa taught me about truly enjoying life and pursuing your passions. While Harry Goldberg was no world-renowned scholar, he had that same infectious smile and positive outlook that Horst did. To be honest, I had a difficult time remaining professional with Horst, as I was always tempted to hug him goodbye and ask if I could adopt him as an honorary grandfather.

When Horst told me the end was close (while still requesting more research), I became visibly upset. He comforted me and assured me that he was a lucky man who had had a great life. I can only hope that we all feel that way—not just at the end, but every day as we pursue our dreams and appreciate the amazing life around us.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Horst Meyer”

  1. Prof Meyer’s generosity and diverse family background enriched many Duke libraries. I first became aware of this scholar and his family when the Lilly Library was offered some precious books on the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918). Perhaps Switzerland’s greatest painter, early Swiss documentary monographs on this artist’s life and work were not the kind of thing I could retrospectively purchase. Learning he was a Duke physics professor piqued my curiosity that much more. I had the chance to thank him once personally for these and, like Melanie, found him charming, self-effacing, and widely versed. Dr Meyer leaves much for us to be grateful for.

  2. Thanks to Melanie and Lee for their remembrances of Horst Meyer. I am one of the numerous Duke librarians mentioned by Melanie who had the good fortune to know Dr. Meyer over the years. I may have first met Horst when I was the Chemistry Librarian (back when we actually had a Chemistry Library). And I know that I had interactions with Horst while I was the Engineering Librarian (back when we actually had an Engineering Library). And I probably helped him a time or two while on duty at the Reference Desk in Perkins Library. The infectious energy of Dr. Meyer had the same impact on me as on Melanie and Lee. He was a pleasure to be with. And like Lee, I recall seeing many wonderful Horst Meyer donations on the gift shelves in the Collection Development office. But my favorite memory of Dr. Meyer was seeing him at the Durham performances of the North Carolina Symphony. The Symphony was very kind to come to Durham, because we were not able to generate much of an audience (as a consequence, we now must drive to Raleigh or Chapel Hill.) The Meyers, however, were always there in Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theater together, husband and wife, in seats near the front. Horst had no doubt heard world class symphonies in Europe and the U.S. The North Carolina Symphony then was hardly world class (it is now in my opinion), but Horst would nevertheless applaud their performances with supreme gusto. The musicians clearly knew the Meyers, they were fixtures at every concert, and many of them looked to the Meyers appreciatively to acknowledge their ovations. A number of those same musicians are still with the Symphony today and no doubt benefited professionally from the positive response of Horst and Mary to their efforts, just as we librarians valued the support of Horst Meyer for our efforts with the scholarly community that is Duke University.

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