In Memoriam: George John Szemler
Stephen J. Simon, January 2004
From the In Memoriam column of the January 2004 Perspectives
Professor Emeritus George John Szemler, who taught Greek and Roman history at Loyola University Chicago for 33 years, passed away of heart failure on February 28, 2003, at the age of 74. Szemler was born in Szombathely, Hungary, in 1928. In 1944, at the age of 16, he joined the St. Laszio Division of the Hungarian Army to fight the Red Army. However, he was sent home to finish high school. The following year, he crossed the border into nearby Austria. Szemler entered the University of Innsbruck where he studied Latin, Greek, and history; he received his undergraduate degree in classical philology in 1950. The same year, he immigrated to the United States. He changed his family name from Szendy to Szemler, which was his mother's maiden name, for fear that the government of Hungary might persecute his family because he had fled his native homeland.
In America, he began teaching Latin at Boys Town in Omaha, where he also served as an organist and assistant choirmaster. Szemler had studied piano and organ since his childhood, and he said on numerous occasions that it broke his heart when the Red Army carried his piano away as spoils of war in 1945. Also in 1950, he enrolled in a master's program in the classics at Creighton University in Omaha. In 1952, his work and studies were put on hold when he was drafted into the army. He served in Germany as an interrogator-interpreter in military intelligence for two years. In 1954, Szemler returned to Boys Town and received his MA in 1956 from Creighton University in classical studies.
In 1957 Szemler began a doctorate studies program in classics at the University of Chicago while serving as the choirmaster at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Chicago. He continued to hold the choirmaster position for a number of years. In 1959, he accepted a position as an instructor in the classics and history at Mundelein College in Chicago. Two years later, Szemler took a position in ancient history at Loyola University Chicago where he remained for the rest of his teaching career. He received his PhD in ancient history from the University of Innsbruck in 1969.
His major scholarly works are The Priests of the Roman Republic: A study of interactions between priesthoods and magistracies (Latomus, Bruxelles, 1972); the entry "Pontifex," in Paulys Realencyclopädie (edited by Hans Gärtner, 1980); and The Great Isthmus Corridor Route: Explorations of the Phokis-Doris Expedition, Vol. 1 (Center for Ancient Studies, University of Minnesota Publications in Ancient Studies, No. 3, Kendall-Hunt, 1991). The encyclopedia entry on the Roman pontiffs raised Szemler to the international level of scholarship. He published 15 articles on the official priests of Rome and the great isthmus corridor in first-tier American and European journals. Szemler presented numerous papers at international professional meetings as well as at many American and Hungarian universities. He was a member of numerous national and international professional organizations.Szemler received six NEH research grants as well as a teaching award from Loyola University Chicago in 1966.
George J. Szemler as a scholar, teacher, researcher, pianist, and choirmaster was a true "Renaissance Man." However, the students he taught constitute his greatest legacy. He produced a number of young ancient historians who went on to teach thousands of students to love and to understand Greek and Roman culture. Now his students' students are carrying on his legacy of love for the classical world!
—Stephen J. Simon, Appalachian State University