Passings: Wolfgang Ahrens  


York University Professor Emeritus of German studies and Senior Scholar Wolfgang Ahrens passed away on Feb. 18 at his home in Woodbridge, Ont. surrounded by family. 

He is the founding Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) and taught at the University from 1969 to 2010.  

He is survived by his wife, Professor Sheila Embleton, and daughter Anne Ahrens-Embleton (Cai Durbin), and many relatives in Germany, Switzerland and the U.K. Ahrens is the only child of the late Siegfried and Else (Riger) Ahrens. 

Wolfgang Ahrens

Ahrens was born in Stralsund, Germany on Jan. 4, 1940, and later moved with his family to Schwetzingen, Germany a few years after the Second World War. He moved to Toronto in 1953. After attending Bloor Collegiate, Ahrens studied at the University of Toronto, earning a BA in German and Italian in 1963. He was an active member of the air cadets (travelling with them across Canada and to Germany). He then went to Ohio State University, earning a MA (1965) and PhD (1969) in German. After completing his PhD, Ahrens returned to Toronto to become a professor at the University, joining the Division of Language Studies teaching a wide range of language, literature and culture courses until his retirement.  

Ahrens served on many committees at all levels of the University, in the Department, Faculty and Senate, and at Calumet College. He enjoyed mentoring younger colleagues, playing an important role in their early careers and their onboarding at York.  

Several colleagues have expressed their appreciation for his mentorship. Retired Associate Professor Mauro Buccheri remembers Ahrens’ administrative leadership, but most importantly how he cared about people and helped junior colleagues navigate academia.  

His colleagues in German studies fondly remember Ahrens as a valuable mentor known for his sage advice, welcoming spirit, generosity and kindness. “A wise and principled man with a strong sense of the value of commitment and service,” recalls MJ Dodman, Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics. Dodman notes Ahrens was vital to ensure junior colleagues felt welcomed. “Wolf was for me, as he was for so many colleagues, an inspiring mentor and an exceptional human being. Our world is less without him.”  

Those who had the privilege of co-teaching with Ahrens such as Associate Professor Gabriele Mueller learned a great deal from him just by sitting in on his lectures. Ahrens was instrumental in reshaping the department in the early 2000s by increasing the suite of languages taught, adding Arabic, Hindi, Jamaican Creole, Korean, Swahili and more to the curriculum, while also constructing the degree programs for Japanese and Portuguese studies.  

Peter Avery, who served as department Chair in the 2000s, remembers Ahrens possessed an incredible understanding of the department. Avery notes, “he was always generous in providing ‘spot-on’ advice when dealing with any tricky problem. His understanding of the history of the department, the curricula of the various sections, of how to get things done in the University was absolutely legendary.”   

Associate Professor Christina Kraenzle recalls Ahrens could “remember often complex course schedules from memory not only from his own department but other departments as well.” 

Ahrens’ research included language pedagogy and he constructed extensive teaching materials throughout his career. From the 1980s he also became an active researcher with publications in onomastics, as well as engaging in service to this field. 

Over 23 years, Ahrens was variously editor of Onomastica Canadiana, treasurer and president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names. He was a regular reviewer of papers in onomastics, including many times for the International Council of Onomastic Sciences, a principal organizer of their Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) supported triennial congress at York in 2008, and principal editor of the digital proceedings of the congress. His interest in Baltic and Viking culture drove his involvement in the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada, best exemplified by his editorship for eight years of Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. Fittingly, his last publication was on the Baltic Germans in the Imperial Russian Navy and the geographical features named after them, which was delivered virtually at the International Congress of Onomastic Sciences in Krakow, Poland in August 2021. 

Outside of academia, Ahrens’ greatest interests were reading and travel, both of which were wide and eclectic, with favourites being the Caribbean and mystery novels in English and German. Combining his interests, he had authored scholarly articles about names in the Caribbean, the two most important of which are definitive etymologies of the names Bermuda and Bahamas.  

A private family funeral took place on Feb. 26. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Ahrens Scholarship, the Embleton Award for Women in Science and Engineering at York University, or an alternative charity of choice.