Growing up in a bilingual home with his parents who had emigrated from Germany, George Koenig seamlessly moved between English and German in his conversations. Today, he continues to mix both languages into his conversations with his wife, Heike ’87, a native of Germany.
“I joke that I am going to record our conversations to see what triggers us to speak in one language over the other,” said Koenig, an emeritus professor of German.
For Koenig, language acquisition has come relatively easy compared to most. His high school French teacher nurtured his talent and encouraged him to apply to her alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont, which is known for its foreign language programs.
Koenig enrolled and went on to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s in German and a minor in Spanish from Middlebury, and landed a job as a civilian instructor of German at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. While teaching at the naval academy, he worked toward a Ph.D. in German at the University of Maryland and also met and married his wife.
They moved to New York when Koenig decided to accept a position teaching German at SUNY Oswego—a role he kept until he retired in December 2000. During his tenure at Oswego, he also earned a master’s in Spanish from Middlebury during a summer intensive program so he could teach that language to Lakers.
“I liked the colleagues and I like the college and I liked the courses I taught,” he said. “I liked the area. I like winter. It was ideal, and after our first child [Monica] was born here, it became our home town.” They raised both of their children, Monica and Philip ’92, in Oswego.
Koenig enjoyed his role as a foreign language teacher—which he said actually required a lot more hats than traditional teaching.
“In teaching a new language, you have to be somewhat of an actor, a comedian, a pantomime,” he said. “It has to be entertaining in some way and interactive, because you can’t as easily communicate with students as you would in a literature, political science or chemistry class.”
Koenig admits that teaching a foreign language could at times be frustrating but his favorite memories of Oswego are those when students did latch on to the language, and a whole new culture opened up to them. He also takes pride in helping many students study abroad.
“Overseas travel gives students total immersion in the language,” he said. “Total immersion really is the most important component to achieve fluency in a language. It’s funny when you study another language, you somehow acquire their culture.”
If that is the case, Koenig is man of many cultures. In addition to German and English, he also is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French, and as a world traveler, he always tries to learn enough of the native tongue to get around.
Although he has visited dozens of countries, he considers his home region in Oswego and Central New York to be among the most beautiful areas in the world. Much of his retirement he spends dedicated to improving and preserving it through his volunteer work with the Heritage Foundation of Oswego, Save Oswego’s Historic Sites, H. Lee White Maritime Museum and the Tree Stewards program.
“This is our home of 50 years, and we’re invested in this city,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful place for us.”