Friends recall anthropology icon, ‘forefather’

Steven Bushong

Prufer known for fierce love for his work, studies

Anthropology professor Owen Lovejoy talks about his late colleague Olaf Prufer at a memorial service in Lowry Hall. Prufer died July 27 after falling ill with cancer. Rachel Kilroy | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

By his pithy words of wisdom, the late anthropology professor Olaf Prufer was remembered Saturday.

According to one student’s recollection, which was repeated at the memorial service, Prufer had said, “Don’t take this as arrogance, but anthropology is the crown of the disciplines, because it looks at the global view of humans and their origins … You push our buttons, and we can pervert the whole damn system!”

The 77-year-old, who had come to be known as a forefather of the anthropology department, with a sharp tongue and formidable intelligence, died July 27 after falling ill with cancer.

Since joining Kent State in 1968, Prufer often taught class in Room 143 of Lowry Hall.

“My husband loved teaching the introductory classes in the lecture halls, and that was the classroom in Lowry that could hold the most students,” Trina Prufer, his wife, said Thursday.

It was appropriate that his colleagues, friends and family would be seated there Saturday, looking like an aged version of an introduction to anthropology class, watching a slideshow of photographs from the uncommon life of Olaf.

Keith Prufer, the professor’s son, opened the memorial service by saying, “He would be happy to know that you have all gathered today in his honor, though I say that knowing full well that he would have first protested an event like this mightily, before acquiescing.”

Following in the tradition of his father, Keith works as an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico. Photographs projected behind him illustrated a recollection of his father’s early life.

As a boy, Olaf sat with a baby lion in his lap, a pet from his father’s exotic diplomatic travels. At age 12, he was enlisted in Hitler Youth, which Olaf referred to as “Hitler Youth bondage.” Later, his life encountered a turning point in India, where he met his first wife and became interested in archeology.

Speakers said he had changed the lives of generations of students, some who would become scientists themselves, including professor Owen Lovejoy. He is now known internationally for reconstructing the skeleton of Lucy.

Lovejoy said he met Prufer in 1964, and without qualification was asked to come along to an archeological dig.

“Olaf liked that I could play guitar,” recalled Lovejoy, who decided to go to the dig, became known as a shovelman and discovered his appreciation for bones and artifacts. “That’s, by accident, how I got into anthropology.”

“I doubt anyone I know has been a greater scholar than Olaf,” he said.

For his contribution to archeology, Olaf Prufer was awarded with The Archeological Society of Ohio’s first lifetime achievement award Saturday. His wife, Trina, was there to receive a gold-plated plaque. Members of the society determined Prufer would be the first recipient of the award a week before his death.

Contact enterprise reporter Steven Bushong at [email protected].