Getatchew Haile was two very different people in one body.
One version of Haile, who died this month at 90, was an eminent scholar at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in St. Joseph, Minn. In his field of philology, the study of the historical development of languages, Haile worked in eight languages, from ancient Hebrew and Arabic to ancient Ethiopian tongues such as Amharic and Ge’ez. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship — the “genius grant” — Haile studied and cataloged manuscripts from the early days of Christianity in Ethiopia, dating back some one and a half millennia.
“Getatchew was the first person to have this full, comprehensive view of Ethiopian literature, this ancient Christian people,” said Columba Stewart, a St. John’s theology professor and executive director of the museum and library. “His legacy is twofold. One is simply the published work, the catalogs, the articles. But the second is the number of young scholars whom he spent time with when they visited him at HMML. He was extraordinarily generous.”
The other version of him was a Renaissance man, who could speak world politics with anybody, who’d be equally attentive in conversation with a 9-year-old as with another scholar, who was both deeply religious and deeply accepting of other religions, and who moved from rural Avon, Minn., to Manhattan for the last several years of his life.
He was a warm, sentimental, joyful man whose nose stayed in the books but whose heart was geared toward adventure and the big questions of life.
“Getatchew Haile was an inspiration to so many across the world,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “His scholarship in Ethiopian studies was groundbreaking, and he was instrumental in bolstering our understanding of his beloved country’s culture and language.”
His courageous heart was what brought him to the United States in the 1970s after a tragedy in his home country. After a coup d’état, Haile served in Ethiopia’s short-lived civilian parliament, and was an outspoken critic of the Derg, the military junta that took over. He was an advocate for democracy as well as the separation of church and state. In October 1975, Derg soldiers tried to arrest him, and Haile was shot. He nearly died; with medical care in England, he survived, though he became a paraplegic the rest of his life.
“Getatchew Haile was perhaps the most eminent scholar I have ever known, but more importantly, he was one of the kindest, most empathetic, and spiritually sensitive persons I have known,” said John Merkle, a theology professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University and a longtime neighbor and friend of Haile. “It was his courage in speaking out for democracy in the face of tyranny that led to his being shot and paralyzed, and with courage he continued for the rest of his life to be outspoken in the defense of democratic values, human rights, and other noble causes.”
The year after he was shot, Haile and his family moved to Minnesota, where he became a professor of medieval studies and the curator of Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’s Ethiopia Study Center. He worked there for four decades.
Haile, who is survived by his wife, six children and 10 grandchildren, remained deeply religious. In the weeks before his death, he quoted St. Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
“He comes from a deeply religious philosophy on life, and sometimes that makes a person dogmatic,” said daughter Sossina Haile. “But he was always open and willing to have conversations about, What does this mean? He was not dogmatic — ‘We’re right, they’re wrong.’ It was, ‘Everyone has their faith.’ He had this incredible ability to have deep conversations about the philosophies of the world.”