Oberlin Blogs

Herb Derwig's Ivy

May 22, 2012

Prof. Erik Inglis ’89

It's an inconspicuous location for a monument, by the back door to Wilder, facing away from the foot traffic shuttling in and out of Decafé.

"Herb Derwig's Ivy," it reads, naming the adjacent green patch.

Given the modest design and more modest location, it's no surprise that very few people know about it; I'd been here a decade before I noticed it. The monument might thus appear to confirm Robert Musil's observation that "there is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments....they are somehow impregnated against attention." But there's something to be said for modest monuments--for when they finally attract your attention, they may capture it more completely than would an elaborate design.

This monument commemorates Herbert Derwig, who was killed by a mine on January 9, 1945, in Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge; he is buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery. The story of his monument is told in the College Archives. Derwig was born in 1924, in Gloversville, NY, where his father George Derwig was a Lutheran minister (a path also pursued by Herbert's brother, George). He applied to Oberlin in the spring of 1942, indicating a love of camping, a mature independence, and a number of friends already at Oberlin. College was a way to reach new goals, though he noted: "As to my future--in these times one may not be sure of anything." Accepted, he enrolled at Oberlin in the fall, living in Men's Building (now known as Wilder Hall). He seems to have made an immediate impression; he was a class officer, and Jim Sunshine (OC '49), who shared that year at Oberlin, describes him as "irrepressible," "immensely popular," and "unbeatable at ping-pong."

Derwig left Oberlin for the army in 1943. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Oberlin's president in these years, corresponded with all Oberlin students who were in the military. He received a letter from Herb on May 10, 1944, written at Camp Gordon in Georgia, in which Herb writes that "although I spent only one year at Oberlin it was a happy one." He was still keen to learn, and requested a copy of Thorstein Veblen's "Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: the case of America." Replying in June, Wilkins reported that a copy of the book was on the way. He also wrote: "What a lot has happened since you wrote, on all fronts, east and west! We certainly seem to be converging on Berlin and Tokyo, though there's plenty of hard fighting ahead still. In Oberlin now we have ten-minute summaries of war news twice a week, illustrated with stereopticon slides of newspaper maps showing the latest developments."

Herb went to Europe in September 1944, serving as a radio technician in the 10th Armored Division. The College did not have a new address for him; while Herbert was besieged in Bastogne for Christmas, the College sent its holiday card for him to Camp Gordon on December 8, 1944; the card never reached him, and was eventually returned to Oberlin, with a handwritten "deceased" and the initials and stamp of Leroy F. Kehr, a warrant officer. The card, in Oberlin's Archive, is unopened still, a monument in its own right.

Six weeks after Herb's death his father George wrote to President Wilkins, thanking him for "all the kindnesses and courtesies extended to my son Herbert during his year at Oberlin. He always spoke of that year as a happy one." He also mentions how much Herbert had appreciated Wilkins' letters. Wilkins replied to George Derwig immediately: "Dear Mr. Derwig: It was more than good of you to write me: I shall value your letter as much as if it had come from Herbert--I can't say more." He reports on the letters he had received from Herbert, and sent a copy of one. An excellent and conscientious correspondent, Wilkins knew the value of a letter, a recognition that informed and was informed by his academic interests. For, in addition to being a college president, Wilkins was a literary scholar who specialized in Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Italian humanist, and published several studies of his letters. Wilkins' letter to Herb's father continues: "In a sense relatively slight, yet definitely true, I am in your place: for he was a son of this Alma Mater, and a son whose brief stay here left an honorable and a friendly memory. I have thus far been spared the tragedy of the corresponding personal loss; but the weight of grief that increases with the lengthening of the sacrificial roll of splendid youth is very heavy for me--so heavy that I dare to think myself in some measure entitled to extend to you my deep sympathy, in the fullest sense of that noble word."

Two more letters from George Derwig report on what he'd learned of his son's death. On April 10th, he writes that he'd heard that Herbert had been guiding a vehicle through a mine field "when an enemy artillery shell set off a mine somewhere in the field. Herbert was not hit. There was not a scratch on him. Death was caused by the concussion, which is said to break one up inside. This is unofficial information we have gleaned from members of his division."

May 8th brought Victory in Europe, and on June 2nd Wilkins sent Derwig the program for a memorial service in which Herbert and Oberlin's other lost students had been remembered. Derwig replied on June 5th, thanking him for the program and reporting the official account of Herbert's death that he had received from a military chaplain: "Some days after the garrison of Bastogne (where Herb spent Christmas) had been freed, Herb and another man were given the mission of going forward to the lines with a radio 'Peep' [sic] to establish a forward communication front. Herb walked behind the vehicle as they slowly moved forward. He took this precaution against expected artillery fire. The vehicle ran over a mine buried in the road, and it seems that the concussion hit in Herb's direction. The driver immediately stopped the 'peep' and, calling for a medic, ran back to where Herb was lying in the road. When the aid man came a few minutes later, he pronounced Herb dead. There was not a mark on his body, not a drop of blood. He was killed instantly, simply by the concussion of the explosion. Pardon this scrawl. This report has upset me more than I realized. Sincerely, G. A. Derwig."

The father's next letter was written on January 4, 1946, and brings us to the memorial:
"My dear Dr. Wilkins:
Enclosed find a check for $25.00 as a memorial to our son Herbert. The 9th of this month is the anniversary of his death. Please ... [use] this amount where, according to your judgment, it will do the most good."

Wilkins replied promptly:
"Dear Mr. Derwig:
My heartiest thanks to you for your gift of $25.00 as a memorial to Herbert.
I shall want to use this very carefully, and shall probably hold it for some time until I am perfectly sure that I have the best use for it. Whenever I do use it I shall write you again.
My own son comes home today after four years of army service: how I wish such joy might have been yours!
Yours gratefully,
EH Wilkins"

Wilkins was then in the last year of his presidency, and as he predicted he held the gift until the end. In a letter written to George Derwig on August 26th, Wilkins reported that
"At noon on Saturday, August 24, I planted an ivy which is to be a memorial for Herbert. It will grow over one of the walls of the Men's Building in which he lived while he was here. Into the stone near the point where the ivy is planted there will be engraved the words HERB DERWIG'S IVY. The gift you sent me last winter will suffice to provide for the care of the plant and for its replacement if replacement should be necessary.

Several of Herbert's friends are in college this Summer; and about a dozen of them gathered to watch the planting. A photograph of the group was taken; and if it comes out well, a copy of it will be sent to you.

This planting was my last ceremonial action as President of Oberlin College.
With all good wishes,
yours cordially,
EH Wilkins"

Photo from the Oberlin College Archives
Front row, left to right: Dick Eisenhauer, Wally Sikes, Dick Weeks, President Wilkins, Bernie Weiner, John Rumely
Back row, left to right: Tom Morgan, Bob Southey, Dave Fowler, Vince Rosenthal, Bob Avery, Jack Kinley, Jerry De Witt, Bill Knapp

It is a quiet monument, even gentle: a little vine and a name cut into the smoothed stone, with no dates, or cause of death, no mention of sacrifice or triumph. But it's still powerful, this ivy planted by the building where Derwig lived during his all-too-brief time at Oberlin, and meant to grow into the future he did not get to know. The same sense of loss and hope for continuity appears in Wilkins' remarks at Memorial Day in 1946, when Oberlin mourned Herb Derwig and fifty-six other alumni who had died in the war: "It is not enough just to remember," Wilkins told the assembly. "Their lives in a sense will continue as they are fulfilled through you."

Herb's parents appreciated the memorial. The last letter in the Wilkins-Derwig correspondence was signed by both George and his wife Louise, and dated September 12, 1946.

"My Dear Dr. Wilkins:
We were deeply moved by your letter telling us of the planting of 'Herb's Ivy,' and also by the photograph which came a few days ago. We are as lost for words to express just what we feel, that you will understand if we merely say from the bottom of our hearts: 'We thank you!'"

While quiet, the ivy was remembered; when the alumni of the World War II years came together fifty years later to create a larger memorial for the alumni who died in the war, their ranks now increased to seventy-five, they transplanted some of Herb Derwig's ivy to the garden around the new monument, which was engraved with the words Wilkins spoke at Memorial Day in 1946.

Oberlin College's World War II Memorial

(The story of this monument is told here).

I came to study these memorials through a first-year-seminar I taught on Monument and Memory. I learned a lot about them with and from the students in the classes, but my chief guide was Jim Sunshine, who served on the committee that supervised the creation of the College's World War II Memorial. A veteran and a journalist, Jim wrote about some of the Oberlinians named on the memorial here; he has also written movingly of his time in England preparing for D-Day and of his years at Oberlin College after returning from the war.

Finally, Jim took the only picture I know of that shows Herb Derwig at the Men's Building, lying on a stone banister at the main entrance and smiling to beat the band. I never knew Herb Derwig, but this is how I like to remember him.

Herb Derwig at Men's Building; Photo by Jim Sunshine

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