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‘So much vitality and spirit’

Claudia Traudt, who taught at the Graham School for more than 40 years, passed away on Feb. 11.

Claudia Traudt

After a long day of work, 1983 Graham School Basic Program graduate Elaine Stenhouse trudged into the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts Building for one of her first alumni classes. She entered a creaky old classroom for an evening session on James Joyce’s Ulysses, wondering if the dense piece of literature might instead lull her to sleep.

And then, Stenhouse encountered Claudia Traudt.

“She woke me up and I have stayed that way ever since,” Stenhouse said of Traudt. “Her joy of teaching, her love of this language, her delicious sense of humor, her extended hand to lead me through an evening of Joyce – all of this – changed my life forever.”

Over a 41-year career as an instructor at the Graham School, Traudt inspired, mesmerized, and energized many. The quintessential Renaissance woman – a teacher, visual artist, sailor, poet, sister, and aunt among her life’s many cherished roles – Traudt passed away on February 11.

“What a gift Claudia was to all of us who were lucky enough to recognize her talent and attach ourselves to her,” Stenhouse said.

 

Landing at the Graham School

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Traudt earned a BFA in painting from Saint Mary’s College at Notre Dame in 1973, where friends called her Muggs – a childhood nickname provided by Traudt’s father – and relished her humor, her vitality, and a vocabulary that frequently saw nouns transformed into verbs. Friends remember her as a “supernova.”

“Muggs never just walked into a room,” said E.J. Donnelly, a friend of Traudt’s for more than 50 years. “Rather, she seemed to ‘explode’ into our presence laughing and hugging anyone in sight.”

Traudt later moved to Chicago. As a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Traudt previewed her teaching career by penning a dissertation investigating the works of Shakespeare, Joyce, and William Butler Yeats.

In 1982, she joined the Graham School’s Basic Program as an instructor, dazzling thousands of students over the subsequent four decades with a spunky mix of smarts and charm.

A 2006 recipient of the Graham School’s Excellence in Teaching Award for the Basic Program, Traudt directed courses on a diverse assortment of poets, authors, and thinkers, tackling icons from Plato to Virginia Woolf to Herman Melville. She professed a particular love, however, for teaching poetry, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Toni Morrison and she basked in the lifelong learning central to the Graham School’s mission.

“Receiving the experience and passion, intellect, and intuition of adult students is simply thrilling,” Traudt said in a 2021 video for Graham.

 

A dynamic classroom leader

With her students, Traudt favored discovery and discourse. She planned class trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, pausing in front of a painting or sculpture and inviting students to report what they saw and felt. She inspired learners to read more deeply and to embrace the power of the written word to uplift lives and sharpen world perspectives. In doing so, she influenced the learning of her students, invigorated self-expectations, and compelled optimism to carry the day.

“To me, she was an angel,” longtime Graham student A. Frank Mullins said. “Because of Claudia, there was no need to be the negative cynic frowning through the day. How could you? Bathed in her guileless cheerfulness, the world was a wonderful intellectual playground filled with classic toys for her to teach you how to play with. And play she did. Her energy and love of such a broad array of subjects was a thrill to witness and an inspiration.”

During classes on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, one of Traudt’s personal favorites, she cited passages from memory, challenged students to hear the melody in the Irish author’s words, and paused class to distribute Irish whiskey and soda bread. She sponsored get-togethers at Irish pubs and welcomed students to join her at Bloomsday festivals. After a group of Graham students examined Ulysses and Finnegans Wake over multiple weeks, Traudt organized a group trip to Ireland to cultivate deeper connections and richer understanding.

George Mann, a 2017 graduate of the Basic Program, fondly recalls Traudt’s dramatic readings from Ulysses, which he termed “thrilling.”

“Claudia was ebullient and irreverent,” Mann said. “She brought her love of Joyce alive and infected all of us with her excitement.”

Students responded to Traudt’s seemingly limitless energy in earnest. A number, in fact, proudly display Traudt’s original artwork in their homes, as much a nod to their teacher’s artistic talent as a reminder of the exhilarating spirit behind the canvas who urged them to think, converse, and engage with unapologetic enthusiasm.

“Claudia had so much vitality and spirit,” said Samantha Burd, who took various classes with Traudt over the last decade. “I will remember her delightful laughter and her tremendous passion for learning. Claudia was creative, caring, and invested so much in her classes.”

 

A lasting legacy

Out of the classroom, Traudt was an equally dynamic and collaborative personality, said Kendall Sharp, Cyril O. Houle Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the Graham School.

“Claudia was beloved by colleagues on the instructional staff for her collegiality and effervescent good cheer,” Sharp said.

Indeed, Traudt made lasting contributions to the Basic Program’s curricular development and to its co-curricular life. She served as staff chair of the Basic Program from 1991 to 1995 and regularly presented her insights in curriculum briefings to the instructional staff and through First Friday and other public lectures.

“Claudia’s passing is a deep loss for our community. She was an educator, mentor, colleague, and friend who positively shaped our lives and who we will remember for her kindness and insight,” Graham School Dean Seth Green said.

Traudt was a unique, singular individual who rattled the lives of those she met in the most kind-hearted and beautiful ways. She sent spontaneous, sometimes hard-to-decipher notes to friends, students, and colleagues, channeling her inner James Joyce with stream-of-consciousness thoughts and unconventional syntax.

In perpetual motion, she led discussions at the Chicago Humanities Festival, displayed her original artwork at local shows, taught in the arts and humanities at Columbia College Chicago, and even competed on “Jeopardy!” in 1997. She departed Alex Trebek and her fellow contestants that day with $2,399 and a 27-inch color TV after correctly answering questions about the Bible, geography, Ancient Greece, music, and books of the ‘90s.

Keith Cleveland, a Graham instructor since 1968, said Traudt represented the curiosity and spirit of Graham with her unceasing quest to learn and engage with others.  

“She was a delight to be around and a delight to know,” Cleveland said. “I never saw her down. I only saw a talented individual willing to give to others all that she could.”

Cynthia Rutz, who joined the Basic Program faculty ranks in 1991, called her longtime colleague “an exuberant personality” who climbed intellectual mountains with students and gladly played the role of their encouraging, joke-telling, hug-dispensing sherpa.

“There were certainly students with a deep love of Claudia who would take any and every class she offered,” Rutz said. “Make no mistake, she left a mark on her students and the Graham School community at large.”

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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