A look at CSU tragedies

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Apr 142004
 
Authors: Christiana Nelson

It will be two years in August.

Two years since he stood before a class.

Two years since he kissed his wife on the cheek.

Two years since he spoke with his children and played in the yard with his grandchildren.

Two years of sorrow for those who knew his tender smile and bad jokes.

It was on Aug. 26, 2002, that German professor Klaus Hoffmann, 70, took his own life.

The sudden death occurred during the week prior to fall classes in 2002 and left many of his colleagues distraught.

“It was very sad because it was right before classes started,” said Paola Malpezzi Price, an associate professor of foreign language. “For weeks his office door still had his presence around.”

Still, the pain remains closer to home for his family.

Hoffmann’s wife, Wanda, remembers him as a loving man and a devoted teacher.

“He really loved teaching. He enjoyed that very much and he enjoyed students – that was a big part of who he was,” Wanda said.

Hoffmann was born in Flensburg, Germany, and began teaching German at CSU in 1967. Price describes him as a charming man who is truly missed by his department.

“He was friendly and he always had a joke, some good, some not so good,” Price said. “He was a kind person and he would go out to coffee with colleagues, there was always a friendly exchange.”

While support groups have helped Wanda get through the shock of Hoffmann’s death, she still wonders what she could have done for her husband.

“No matter how much you study suicide and question it, there are still unanswered questions,” Wanda said.

While the pain remains for those in Hoffmann’s life, the experience is not isolated.

Since Hoffmann’s death, two other professors at CSU have committed suicide.

Students and professors question the reasons for these professors’ deaths in a short time period.

George Thornton, a psychology professor, said he worries what three CSU professors committing suicide could imply about the university.

“I think it really raises the question about what the stress level is within the whole organization,” Thornton said. “At major universities there are multiple demands and multiple stressors.”

Thornton said while professors at CSU must instruct courses, they are also responsible for tasks outside of the classroom.

“There is a lot of pressure to develop your own research and there are rising expectations for publishing work, bringing in grants and serving the public,” Thornton said.

While three professors at CSU have committed suicide, the police departments of both the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Northern Colorado reported no professor suicides during the past two years.

Christian Wipf, whose father is a teacher, said he does not believe the connection between teaching and suicide is clear.

“Teaching’s thankless; everyone agrees on that fact. It’s not great paying and you don’t get a lot of recognition,” said Wipf, a junior English literature major. “On the other hand, Larimer County has always had high suicide rates, so I don’t think it is that surprising.”

In 2003, 46 people in Larimer County committed suicide, said Bev Thurber, director of the Suicide Resource Center of Larimer County.

In fact, in national statistics, Larimer County’s suicide rates are above the 2001 national average of 10.8 suicides for every 100,000 people.

“It goes up and down every year,” Thurber said. “In 2002 in Larimer County we had the lowest number we’ve seen in 10 years, but it is still 12.5 suicides per every 100,000 people.”

While Thurber said the professors’ deaths may not have been a result of their occupation: They all had characteristics of largely at-risk groups.

Colorado has the nation’s fifth-highest suicide rate, and states located in western-mountain regions also tend to rank high in suicide rates.

Two of the CSU professors lost to suicide were Caucasian males between the ages of 35 and 55, a group that is shown to have a high incidence of suicide.

While women attempt suicide more often, Thurber said males account for 90 percent of the suicides in Larimer County.

Elderly adults, like Hoffmann, have the highest occurrence of suicide, composing statistics that exceed the nation’s rates by 50 percent, according to the American Association of Suicidology Web site.

Thurber said the connection between college professors and suicide may be associated with specific populaces being more statistically vulnerable to suicide.

“I’ve never heard that college professors are more susceptible,” Thurber said. “But the whole demographic of college professors is that it is a largely male group in an at-risk age range.”

Thomas Gorell, the interim vice president of Faculty Affairs, said that while he is not an expert on such issues, he would not blame CSU for the professor’s deaths.

“My feeling is that is it probably a coincidence,” Gorell said. “My sense, without knowing any details, is that the issues people were facing were more personal than institutional.”

Despite statistics and theories, Wanda Hoffmann only knows what is in her heart.

It will be two years in August.

And after experiencing the grief of losing of her husband and living with unanswered questions caused by his death, Wanda believes that the primary reasons for suicide are personal.

“I tend to think that it’s random,” she said.

“Each individual has their own,” she said, trailing off for a moment. “I can’t tie it to anything.”

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