Otto Begus, a retired professor and former philosophy and religious studies chair at Morgan State University who was a strong advocate for liberal arts education, died of complications of dementia and heart failure Feb. 10 at his Tuscany-Canterbury home. The former Waverly resident was 85.
Born in Steyr, Austria, he was the son of Anni Wolf Begus, a school teacher, and Otto Begus Sr., an attorney.
He was a 1950 graduate of the Real Gymnasium in Landeck in the Tirol district. He then traveled to Buenos Aires and worked and studied in Argentina and later in Chile. While on the staff of the University of Santiago’s library, he decided to join the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order.
According to a biography supplied by his wife, Dr. Begus, as a Jesuit seminarian, taught young people in the poor sections of Puerto Montt, Chile. He founded a Boy Scout troop and went on to be a district Scout leader. On a scouting trip to southern Chile, he met the poet Pablo Neruda, a Nobel laureate. On another occasion in Latin America, he met the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
In 1960, Dr. Begus began studies at the former Jesuit Seminary in Woodstock in Baltimore County. He completed his theological training and study and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. He taught at Georgetown University and met his future wife, Sarah Woolley, at a dinner party of international students. They married in 1966.
He explained to his Jesuit superiors his decision to leave the priesthood. He moved to Germany, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy at Frankfurt University in 1969.
By then he had two young children and returned to Maryland. He and his wife found an old frame house on Homestead Street in Waverly that was convenient to Morgan State, and he joined the faculty in 1969.
He became a professor and taught in the philosophy and religious studies department until 2009, when he retired.
“My husband served as chair of the department for 25 years and left a legacy of curriculum development and departmental collegiality,” said his wife. “He developed the foundational logic course required of all Morgan undergraduates.”
She said her husband created a pre-law concentration in the philosophy department and taught courses in Latin to prepare the pre-law students in the language of law. He wrote a textbook and donated the proceeds from their sale to his school.
A 1995 article in The Baltimore Sun said that Dr. Begus volunteered to teach a Latin course when the previous teacher retired. He emphasized the writings of the Roman orator and lawyer Cicero. The course attracted 23 students.
"I thought it was worth continuing the course so I offered it as a gift to the university,” he said in the 1995 Sun article. “Latin opens the students' minds. It gives them a sense of history. And lots of stuff is incredibly modern, incredibly contemporary, also quite funny. Latin also helps students learn about the structure of language, especially the English language."
Dr. Burney Hollis, professor of English and dean emeritus of Morgan’s College of Liberal Arts, said, “I’d walk by his classroom and it seemed like he was preaching, really. He was exciting, dramatic and forceful in his thinking and teaching. He was a staunch defender of the liberal arts and he was my best ally.”
Dr. Hollis recalled his colleague’s mastery of languages. “Except for Morgan’s foreign language faculty, I don’t think anyone on the campus had his skills. … He was quite the Renaissance man.”
His wife said that throughout his career at Morgan, Dr. Begus came into contact with thousands of Morgan students. “He recruited and mentored many faculty members and he counseled students,” she said. “He was a beloved and popular professor and received awards from students and the administration.”
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After his retirement, the philosophy department established the Otto Begus Scholarship Fund to honor his achievements and service.
Dr. Begus also lectured at the correctional facility in Jessup. He published articles and spoke at academic conferences. His philosophical interests were wide-ranging, but he was most interested in the “Frankfurt School” theory, which combines European philosophy and social theory.
His wife said he was committed to social justice; while a seminarian at Woodstock, he volunteered with migrant farm workers in southern Pennsylvania. He helped them with legal issues. He also took on housing discrimination issues while a Baltimore Neighborhoods volunteer.
He read and wrote poetry. He followed world soccer and coached a youth team, the Mount Washington Bombers.
He lived in Waverly until moving to the Highfield House several years ago.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 14 at the Morgan University Chapel.
Dr. Begus is survived by his wife of 52 years; a son, Justin Begus of Seattle, Wash.; a sister, Jutta Prager of Zurich, Switzerland; and two grandchildren. A daughter, Diana “Didi” Begus, died in 2001.