Resident Spotlight: John Karl

The tragedies and societal storms of the twentieth century have, in one way or another, affected the lives of everyone here at Camphill Ghent, and John Karl is certainly no exception. Born in February 1932 to German parents then living in Switzerland, John was just five months old when the national election took place in Germany in which the Nazis became the largest party in parliament. John’s father, who came from Munich, had made a vow in 1919, during the revolutionary period that followed the end of the First World War, that “if these fellows”—he meant the ad hoc right-wing militia groups that presaged the Nazis—“ever get into power it will mean a second World War far worse than the one we have just experienced. If that happens, I will leave Germany and Europe altogether.” Seeing what was happening in his home country, and being true to his word, he immediately began making arrangements to emigrate. By the time John was two years old, the young family were living on an apiary, at the edge of a jungle in Costa Rica, and engaged in shipping tropical honey to North America and western Europe.

Five years later, in 1939, the war had broken out in Europe and the question of how they would educate the boy was foremost on the parents’ minds. Being students of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, and very interested in the educational impulse arising from this understanding of the human being, they had already made arrangements with a teacher at the Waldorf school in Basel, Switzerland, for the child to attend there. The outbreak of the war, however, ruled this out. And so a young John Karl traveled to New York City to live with relatives there and attend the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan, the first Waldorf school in North America. This was an experience he loved. For high school he attended the High Mowing School in New Hampshire, which he did not love quite as much, but where he was joined by his parents and his sister, his father taking on the gardening for the school and his mother teaching biology.

Mrs. Beulah Emmett, the founder of High Mowing, encouraged this bright young student to attend Harvard College after high school, in part to aid the reputation of her fledgling, in some ways experimental, school; which he dutifully did. Upon graduating from Harvard, John was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent his year of service largely in Europe, where he connected for the first time with the continent of his birth. Every moment off-duty was dedicated to travel, hiking, and experiencing as much and as many places there as he possibly could. After having grown up entirely in America, but now feeling very much at home in Europe, a question that lived in him in those days was: Am I or am I not European?

John did not physically emigrate back to the Old World after his time in the Army, but returned to America and to Harvard where he did, in a sense, maintain his connection to Europe through his studies in history. After receiving his doctorate, he embarked on a career of teaching and further self-education, for, as he saw it, if his teaching was to be successful, he would need to continue to learn. And so he still does. A person of the book and of the written word, his contributions to the Thursday Poetry Group at Camphill Ghent are always well-researched, original, and instructive. He has been at Camphill Ghent from the beginning and, although he admits that what he had initially in mind for his retirement years did not manifest as he had envisioned, his wise appreciation of the community life that he has found here is keen and forthright. Perhaps most important for the community is the simple fact of his presence here among us. A generally quiet man, his earnest and strong presence is utterly unique and irreplaceable, which has a meaning for the community not readily conveyed in words. Easier than describing it would be to try to notice or reflect upon the effect of the comforting reliability of seeing him steadfastly studying and writing in the Tourmaline Café, and the brightness of his inward sincerity.