“I wasn’t a big fan of Dr. Kaelber on the first day. He acted like he knew everything,” said freshman Nick Boghos in 2007. “Later, I found out he did know everything!”
That’s been the experience of multiple generations of Wagner College students with religion professor Walter Kaelber, who retired this summer after half a century on Grymes Hill.
Born in north Jersey in 1943, Walter Kaelber earned his bachelor’s degree in history and math at Bucknell University in rural central Pennsylvania.
“Thereafter, I attended the University of Chicago,” Kaelber told a Wagnerian reporter in 1985, “studying comparative religion with the world’s foremost authority in the field, Mircea Eliade.”
The son of German immigrants, Kaelber was raised in a Protestant Christian household. His studies of comparative religion at Chicago in the late 1960s did more than just prepare him for a scholarly career; they changed his personal perspective on faith.
“The transformation was a gradual one,” he told the Wagnerian. “It was Hermann Hesse’s novel, ‘Siddhartha,’ that began my inquiry into other religions. I began to suspect, not that the Christian religion was false, but that there simply had to be more.
“The academic study of religion sees in all religions an expression of man’s spiritual striving,” Kaelber said, explaining the core of his approach to the field. “I think that only the comparative approach can really show how each religion is unique and special and, at the same time, clarify the elements that various religions share.”
Walter Kaelber is known as a tough but inspiring teacher who expects his students to really engage in their classroom discussions.
“Class was a thinking exercise. You’d go into class with one opinion on the book you were discussing,” Nick Boghos said, “and walk out with another.”
“Dr. Kaelber’s ‘tell it like it is’ approach to religion has always endeared him to students,” wrote senior Heather Weinman for this magazine in 2005. “That and his unfailing sense of humor.”
During his first meeting with a group of first-year students in 2007, Kaelber wanted to convey to the freshmen that he had prepared for his encounter with them.
“I went over your files, and almost everyone picked this [class] as their number-one choice,” he joked, “which says to me that you’re certifiably insane.”
All kidding aside, the stuff Walter Kaelber taught his students was strange and fascinating.
“It really does make you think,” as one of his students, Kyle Glover ’11, put it. “It messes with your head.”