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September 3, 2015

Obituary: Elizabeth Wylie-Ernst

wylie-ernstA memorial service will be held Friday, Sept. 4, at 4 p.m. in 501 Cathedral of Learning for German department lecturer Elizabeth Wylie-Ernst, who died July 15, 2015. She was 55.

Until going on leave during the spring 2015 semester, Wylie-Ernst had been teaching German classes on reading and writing, major cultural periods, European folktales, phonetics, German media, professional German, the teaching of German and other aspects of language education.

She had served the department in many capacities: director of language studies and undergraduate studies, TA/TF coordinator, German club faculty liaison, representative to the college in high school program and others.
“She bore a very heavy administrative load in this department and did it without complaint,” said John Lyon, the department chair and director of graduate studies. “She was always asking what else she could do.” In fact, he recalls, when another language department’s faculty member was unable to conduct the pre-semester introduction to teaching for graduate students about to become TAs, Wylie-Ernst stepped in.

She taught courses with high enrollments, which don’t normally get the most enthusiastic online reviews, although her classes did, Lyon pointed out. “She had a very loyal following among undergraduate students,” he said. And, he added, “she would go out of her way to make personal connections to new students.”

Wylie-Ernst was a Students’ Choice award nominee 2008-13, earning the Provost’s Award for Excellence 2007-08, voted among the best-liked instructors in a resident assistant poll 2001-02 and named to the Student Governing Board’s faculty honor roll 2000-01.

Traveling to Germany as a child, she knew early on that she wanted to become “a teacher and promoter of her language and culture,” Wylie-Ernst wrote in a profile on her department’s website. “After several exchange programs and periods of living abroad, I have achieved what I set out to do then: Not only am I able to share my enthusiasm for German with my undergraduates, but as the director of language studies I am able to share my teaching experience, workshop materials and research with my graduate student instructors and with colleagues from around the world.”

She received all her degrees from Pitt: a BA in German and French and an MA and PhD in German. She was a German department TA 1988-90 and a fellow 1991-96, which included an exchange program fellowship to Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, 1994-95. During her student days she also was a translator for several publications and a reporter for The Pitt News.

She was nominated for the Bellet Award at the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and elected to the University Senate’s student affairs committee in 2006.

She also served on many search, curriculum, advisory, course revision, outcomes assessment and budget committees for her department. Wylie-Ernst contributed scholarship to Prentice Hall’s new first-year German textbook, to be published this year, and to the Yale Encyclopedia of Motifs in 2004, and started working as a reviewer for Foreign Language Annals in 2008. She presented at many language and teaching conferences and was a member of the Modern Language Association, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of German and other professional societies.

“She was a role model for a lot of the students,” says former colleague Claire Siskin, a department lecturer.

That included Melissa Boby, a double major in German and chemistry, who had many occasions to seek Wylie-Ernst’s advice. “Anyone who spent any time in the German department could tell how much she cared and how very much she was invested in the success of her students,” Boby said.

“There was nothing like sitting down at an advising appointment and having her fix what you were sure was going to be the worst conceivable course load. Not only do I owe my German degree to her, but she also had a hand in encouraging me to stick with my path in chemistry after I encountered my first failure and wanted to quit.

“I would run into her when she was out for a smoke,” Boby continues. “I think over the course of four and a half years, I only had two formal advising appointments in her office … One day, while sitting on the benches by the back doors of the Cathedral, Dr. Wylie-Ernst noticed that I wasn’t smoking. She got so excited and congratulated me on quitting smoking, told me how proud she was. The thing is, I never smoked, and she’d only just noticed. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. …”

But her mentor was ultra-attentive when it really counted, Boby adds: “Upon realizing that I only needed three classes to complete the German major, Dr. Wylie-Ernst threatened to ‘hunt me down like a dog’ if I didn’t return for an extra semester. Needless to say, I returned. For such a small, unimposing woman, she was absolutely terrifying and pointed in her determination.”

Former German graduate student Derek Schuetz recalls meeting Wylie-Ernst in similar circumstances outside the Cathedral of Learning: “We both sat on a bench for about an hour just talking about anything and everything, ranging from courses, futures, thesis topics, things to improve the courses, house hunting, history, literature, current events, etc. One of the best qualities about Dr. Wylie-Ernst was that she would stop and talk with you regardless of any circumstances.

“She truly cared about her students and it showed. A few of us even joked around with her that she would don her war paint and go on the warpath to help her students out.”

As Clark Muenzer, a fellow faculty member, remembers: “What never changed over the decades was her heartfelt belief in the University’s educational mission and, most especially, in the scores of students whose lives she enriched as a teacher, an adviser, a mentor, a supervisor and a friend.

“Beth helped to set the foundation for the growth and success of our undergraduate programs, and for this, too, she will be sorely missed.”

Samantha Shipeck recalls being surprised by an email from the German department when Shipeck was still a high school senior. It was an offer of a chance at a fellowship.

“I was nervous when I went to meet with the department to discuss my options,” says Shipeck, “but Dr. Wylie-Ernst was one of the first people there to greet me. Her warm welcome framed my impression of the department, and her faith in me and excitement for my future helped me make my decision to attend Pitt.”

Shipeck was even able to consult with Wylie-Ernst from overseas when a problem arose during Shipeck’s study-abroad experience. “Despite the time difference and her own commitments, she responded right away and helped me through it.”

Wylie-Ernst is survived by her husband Thomas Ernst; her sister and brother-in-law Jennifer and George Faines; her brother-in-law Paul Kiratzis; and several cousins.

Contributions are being accepted for a memorial fund established in her name (

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 1

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