As a freshly minted professor, Jochen Schulte-Sasse decided to leave his native Germany to try "something adventurous."

He came to Minnesota in 1968, bought a Studebaker for $100 and drove around the prairie in search of the Old West.

"It was some childlike quest," he once said -- and to his disappointment, he didn't find much left.

But he never lost that childhood fascination, even after becoming one of the leading scholars in the esoteric world of comparative literature and philosophy, according to friends and family. He was an "intellectual powerhouse" who was equally at home writing about Harlequin romances and European classics.

Schulte-Sasse, a humanities professor at the University of Minnesota for more than 30 years, died Dec. 12 at age 72. He was best known as the co-founder and editor of an influential book series, the Theory and History of Literature, published by the University of Minnesota Press, and as co-editor of the journal Cultural Critique.

An obituary in his native country described him as a master of "Kant to kitsch."

Born in Germany during World War II, Schulte-Sasse grew up joining the sit-ins and teach-ins of the turbulent 1960s, and became what he called a "cultural and intellectual historian." After earning his doctorate, he spent a year as a visiting instructor in Minnesota in 1968 and joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1978.

His main goal was to teach students to think critically for themselves, said his daughter Linn, 35, an attorney in California. With his deep German accent and professorial demeanor, he could seem quite daunting, she admits. "Oh, yeah, definitely. He intimidated all of my brother's and my friends when we were younger," she said.

But "he was not a snobby guy," said his son, Daniel, 30, of Minneapolis. His music collection told the story. "He'd have all sorts of wonderful classic opera in there with Faith Hill and ABBA," he said.

Schulte-Sasse was known to teach classes on Harlequin romances and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. "You can learn a lot from pop cultural phenomena," he once said in an interview. His concern was that when people "abandon themselves in group action," they stop thinking for themselves. "I find this type of experience rather dangerous," he said.

Several years ago, he developed a rare degenerative disorder and retired in 2011. "The saddest thing ... was that his vision was one of the first things to go," said Prof. Thomas Pepper, a friend and colleague at the university. But even when he couldn't read, he never lost his "intellectual passion and curiosity," Pepper said. "He kept learning his whole life."

A memorial service will be held in January. In addition to Linn and Daniel, he is survived by daughter Heike Schulte-Sasse of Bremen, Germany; his former wife, Linda Schulte-Sasse of Minneapolis; three brothers, and two grandchildren.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384