Leir’s legacy at Clark resonates through Luxembourg program

Students enrolled in Clark's May Term in Luxembourg are treated to views like this.

Henry J. Leir made his fortune in metals and mining, but he never forgot that his wealth was earned, not inherited. His work ethic was so prodigious that he went to the office the day before he died at the age of 98.

Over the course of his long, colorful life, Mr. Leir held an abiding affection for many things. One of them was the The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg; in 1933, he fled to Luxembourg soon after the Nazis gained absolute political power in Germany. After enjoying success there, Mr. Leir left for the United States in 1938 and continued to build a global business, yet he remained grateful to Luxembourg for the safe haven it provided his family.

He also appreciated the enduring worth of a humanistic education. Though Mr. Leir, at age 11, was forced to take on the role of pater familias for his mother and siblings after his father died, he remained a gifted student who mastered several languages and cultivated a love of the arts and literature. Only a mining apprenticeship kept him from attending university.

Henry J. Leir

It wasn’t until Mr. Leir was in his 80s that these twin passions came together to benefit Clark University. According to Walter Schatzberg, professor emeritus of German, Mr. Leir learned about Clark through Steve Dune ’53, former chair of the University’s board of trustees, whose law firm did work for him. Trustee Alice Higgins — who, like Mr. Leir, channeled her wealth into a wide range of philanthropies — developed a relationship with him, and extolled the virtues of Clark.

Prof. Schatzberg tells of his first meeting with Mr. Leir in Switzerland, where the famed industrialist-turned-philanthropist sent a Bentley to pick up the professor and deposit him at his place in the mountains. “He was a fascinating man — lively, intelligent. He liked things done a certain way and always done on time,” Schatzberg says.

The two men became fast friends, and, beginning in 1980, the groundwork was set for Clark’s relationships with the Grand Duchy, which led to the creation in 1985 of the Henry J. Leir Luxembourg Program at Clark University.

Funded through the Leir Charitable Foundations, the program comprises an impressive array of active learning opportunities, international conferences, internships and scholarships that have benefited hundreds of Clark students over the years.

The program’s crown jewel is the May Term, begun in 1986, which at the conclusion of the spring semester sends about 40 undergraduates — typically divided equally among Clark and Holy Cross students (students from other colleges have also attended) — to Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg from mid-May to mid-June. The Leir Charitable Foundations subsidize part of the cost for the Clark and Holy Cross students.

Students take one of three course offerings in a palate of disciplines. Recent courses have included “Beyond Armageddon: Enmity to Amity in Europe” (history); “Cultural Psychology of Urban Living” (psychology); “Seeing the Light: At the Crossroads of Art and Science” (physics), “Comparative Courts and Law” (government); “Nutrition, Aging and Health in the U.S. and Europe” (biology) and “From the Euro to a New Superpower?” (economics).

The learning is intimate and intense, with classroom work complemented by field trips that send students to locales in Luxembourg, Germany, France, Belgium, and sometimes Holland.

“When I taught medieval life and culture, the Middle Ages weren’t just about memorizing dates,” says SunHee Kim Gertz, professor of English at Clark and co-director with Walter Schatzberg of the Henry J. Leir Luxembourg Program. “We’d go see the cathedral where events had occurred, or visit monasteries. These trips were the textbook coming to life.”

Henry J. Leir and Prof. Walter Schatzberg speak with students during a Luxembourg luncheon.

Uwe Gertz, the longtime coordinator of the Leir Program, says that depending on the course, students might view the Parliament in Strasburg, visit battlefields in France, or spend an afternoon at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Physics students studying the technical properties and artistic virtues of light have visited museums to study how the Dutch masters employed light in their paintings.

Admittance to the May Term is a competitive application process, with the three professors who are teaching that year’s courses selecting the students who will make the trip to Luxembourg. In some respects the accommodations are light years from dorm life — the students and professors reside in the Klouschter, a former nunnery renovated into a luxury hotel and conference center — yet there exists a deep measure of collegiality bred from living and working together.

As SunHee Kim Gertz notes, group work is an essential component of the May Term. “Sometimes you have to step back and let the students do the teaching of each other,” she says. “That’s a hard thing for a professor to do, but the value of it has been confirmed to me in spades during the May Term.” She adds with a laugh, “Uwe warns the faculty that the experience has a bit of the camp counselor aspect to it, and I kind of like that.”

Clark students enjoy themselves away from the classroom during May Term.

Clark senior Benjamin Gardner, an Environmental Science & Policy major, learned about the economics of the European Union during the 2011 May Term. “I was curious to understand how the fundamental differences between the EU and the U.S. explained the differences between their respective environmental and social policies,” Gardner says. “While my main area of interest was only addressed explicitly during one class period, the class exceeded my expectations. We not only learned about these differences in our classroom, we lived them. During class trips, personal weekend travel, and even in Mondorf, the European setting made our discussions tangible.”

The Leir program boasts other elements as well. Its internship component has placed students for summer internships at Citibank-Luxembourg, The U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg, the international research institute CRP-Gabriel Lippmann, and the European headquarters of iTunes in Luxembourg City. The Henry J. Leir Ph.D. Research Scholarship, a prestigious yearlong internship with the Banque Centrale du Luxembourg, has led to job offers with Central Banks in Europe for Clark students, including one from the Luxembourg bank itself.

'My time in Luxembourg was challenging, enlightening, and rewarding; I learned so much both from the internship and from living abroad in this wonderful country.'

Madeline DeDe-Panken '12

Madeline DeDe-Panken ’12 was employed this past summer at the National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg City, working on a variety of projects. Most of her internship involved researching and cataloging nearly 200 photographs by Edward Steichen, the prominent Luxembourg-born photographer who worked in America throughout the mid-20th century and was chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. “I honed my research skills, delving into a variety of databases and internet resources to discover who each photograph was of and why it was taken,” DeDe-Panken says.

Also among the Leir programs are conferences and workshops in Luxembourg, run by Clark faculty, that bring together scholars and professionals for intensive discussion and analysis. Closer to home, the Henry J. Leir Lectures attract prominent Luxembourg citizens to Clark’s campus to lecture in their areas of expertise. Last October, Jean-Paul Senninger, Luxembourg’s ambassador to the United States, detailed how his nation’s economy has remained robust even as some of its European partners stagger beneath historic debt and struggle to weather the global recession. (Read about Senninger's visit here.)

SunHee Kim Gertz tells the story of how Henry J. Leir regularly attended the luncheon marking the conclusion of another May Term (the luncheon is a tradition that upon Mr. Leir’s death was continued in his honor). When he thought the time was right, Mr. Leir would tap Uwe Gertz, and the two would rise and approach the students gathered at a nearby table. Henry Leir would then address the students in German, not in English, despite his fluency in the language, and Uwe would translate.

The choice of language buttressed Mr. Leir’s underlying message to the students, Uwe says. “Learn as much as you can from an international perspective, and always be there for other people,” he says. “We think that makes Clark a perfect context for this mission.”

To learn more about the Henry J. Leir Luxembourg Program at Clark University, visit clarku.edu/offices/leir/.

— Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services