Historian of big questions – Reed Magazine


Reed mourns the loss of Professor Ed Segel, who taught history for 38 years.

By Randall S. Barton
October 19, 2021

From Beethoven to Vietnam, from Aristotle to the Cold War, Professor Ed Segel’s sparkling lectures have inspired generations of Reed students. He taught history and the humanities for 38 remarkable years, always inspiring his students to consider the big questions.

Segel passed away peacefully at Rose Villa retirement home in Portland on September 30, 2021, at the age of 82.

His academic field was European diplomatic history, in particular the relations between the great European powers from the end of the 18th century to the present day. But his particular interest was to see his students succeed.

“I’m always happy if my students become thoughtful thinkers, doctors and academics,” he said. “But what I really want them to do is go out and take over the world.”

Edward Barton Segel grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in downtown Boston. “Ed was quick to point out that his birthday was on Christmas Day,” recalls Leslie Vickers Jones ’83. “I can still hear him say, ‘And my mother’s name was Mary!

“I think that very much started his fascination with the British monarchy and the British royal family,” said the professor. Jay dickson [English]. “His house on Southeast Rural Road contained all kinds of royal memorabilia: a framed poster advertising the 1947 honeymoon cruise of Princess Elizabeth and Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; baptism spoons to commemorate the weddings of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and Prince William and Catherine Middleton. He had also brought out in his living room an old British pewter chocolate box with his great hero, the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill on it. He was a shameless Anglophile.

Indeed, Segel hosted an annual 4th of July barbecue, called “Poor Old George III”, to mourn the succession of the thirteen colonies from the British and some wondered if he had something of a British accent, maybe from the year he spent in Oxford.

“Ed seemed to speak with rhotacism, which made it difficult for him to utter his ‘r’ sounds (which in particular made it difficult for him to give directions to the street he lived in, Rural Road),” Dickson said. “He told me that Barbara Walters grew up in the same predominantly Jewish neighborhood in downtown Boston, although they never met. I always thought that his apparent rhotacism was like his and that it was probably more because they had the same accent than because they had real speech difficulties.

Segel graduated from Everett High School in Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his freshman year. Henry Kissinger was one of his professors at Harvard. Between university and graduate studies he did a one-year scholarship to the University of Oxford in England.

Segel received both a master’s and a doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was mentored by Raymond Sontag, an advocate for containing Soviet expansion during the Cold War. As a teacher, Segel developed lessons on the Cold War and the Vietnam War, which was particularly personal for him as three of his classmates were killed in the conflict.

He was appointed to UC Berkeley and taught there from 1965 to 1973. “To sum it all up,” he says, “I didn’t publish, so I perished. In 1972/73 I applied for academic positions and was very lucky to come to a place like Reed, which doesn’t place as much emphasis on publishing as it does on teaching. “

Beginning with Reed in 1973, Segel taught history and the humanities. His main academic interests were diplomatic history of the 19th and 20th centuries, European history and intellectual history in the European mode. He sought to weave the threads of national and diplomatic history by entering the mindset of diplomats and the public. One of the “Segel laws” held that all problems are essentially problems of diplomatic history. (A less learned law was “Always keep room for dessert.”)

He has also lectured on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, Beethoven, Vietnam and all the rest, particularly proud of his humanities lectures on Beethoven and Mozart. A mentor at Reed was Prof. John Tomsich [history 1962–99], whose subtlety of thought and mastery of a wide range of historical movements that Segel has strived to match. The two men held the presidency of the history department for a long time.

“Ed was the perfect professor for the humanities, given his broad interests ranging from opera and literature to, of course, history,” said Peter Goodman ’89. “He drew on the entirety of human experience to choose how to present the texts we were confronted with, and he encouraged us to use the readings as starting points for the bigger questions that might be. asked – questions about justice, tradition and social progress. . “

Segel’s wry sense of humor also endeared him to his students. On election night 2004, Amanda Waldroupe ’07 looked at the returns with friends and went to bed, pretty sure John Kerry would lose. She woke up the next morning in a state of despair, confirmed that Bush had won the election, and attended the Hum 220 conference at 9 a.m.

“I walked across campus to the psychiatric auditorium and I will always remember how quiet the campus was that morning,” she said. “People went to class together but didn’t talk. It was like walking through a cemetery. We took our seats and Ed stood at the desk, looking at his notes. He was about to start lecturing, then he stopped. “I know many of you must be disappointed with last night,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good to live in a bubble. “

When he was in Berkeley, Segel started seeing a therapist for his homosexuality. “I thought then, like almost everyone outside of the movement itself, that being gay is somehow abnormal,” he recalls. He found a psychiatrist who, in their first conversation, admitted, “I have a hard time coming to terms with homosexuality. “

“If I had known then what I know now, I would have stood up and gone out,” he said. “He was giving me a sales job for a change. But since I wanted to change, it seemed good to me at the time. Later I realized this was a very bad therapeutic approach, as it should have been neutral, rather than encouraging me that way. The upside is that after about three years, when I realized I loved myself the way I am and that meant loving myself as gay, I didn’t because of his insistence. I did it the other way around, versus his exhortation. So, in a way, it made my own decision more authentic.

Segel said he was “more or less” openly gay when he came to Reed. “The openness has increased over time,” he said. “At first I was a little nervous about being on campus, then I realized that some gay Berkeley students I knew had called their gay friends in Reed and said ‘There is this young man, Ed Segel, coming. Say hello. So they knew about me before I got here. And then I kept running into them in the gay bars. Too bad for a cover. J realized it was no use.

He recalled that when he arrived at Reed, the 10-member faculty advisory committee had three gay members. “They weren’t out of the fact that they weren’t talking about homosexuality issues, but everyone knew and they knew everyone knew,” he said. “So the atmosphere was tolerant enough, tolerant enough.”

“Ed was openly gay at a time when it was rather rare in academia,” said the professor. Matt Pearson ’92 [linguistics]. “He was an early sponsor of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and a staunch supporter of faculty for successive generations of queer student groups on campus. In the early years, even in a city like Portland and at a college like Reed, it got gutsy. Reed’s current generation of queer teachers owe him a debt of gratitude.

Professor Dickson remembered Segel as one of Reed’s nicest and most caring teachers to whom many gay students have come for mentorship and advice. “At a time in the ’70s and’ 80s, in particular, when it was not easy to be openly gay, his homosexuality was well known to students and professors (although he always spoke of it in extremely dignified terms – he referred to himself with a wink as “a gentleman of a certain character”). Gay students in particular knew he was someone to give them advice on the delicate issue of navigating a gay identity in college where the mainstream culture was not only heterosexual but also sometimes homophobic.

In addition to being named an Honorary Life Member of the Gay Men’s Chorus, Segel has also supported equity groups including the Right to Privacy PAC, Basic Rights Oregon, the Q Center and GLAPN.

When he retired in 2011, former students, led by Lucien Foster ’95, Nelson Minar ’94, and Behzad Khosrowshahi ’91, established the Ed Segel scholarship.

“Ed influenced me during my four years in college and guided me afterward,” said Lucien, who heads digital partnerships for BNY Mellon. “It makes a teacher very special. “

An interdisciplinary graduate in history and literature, Lucien also gets along philosophically with Segel. The two enjoyed occasional evenings at the opera, dined together, and Segel advised Lucien on everything from career changes to personal relationships with girlfriends, during and after college. “His advice was incredibly valuable and he continued to be an important player in my life as I moved forward,” said Lucien.

Sheldon Yett ’86, a seasoned UN diplomat leading a mission for UNICEF, had Segel as his thesis supervisor, but found in him a long-lasting friend and mentor. Segel encouraged him to join the Peace Corps. “It’s funny, but somehow the guy walking around campus in a tight-fitting suit was the easiest person to talk to,” Sheldon said.

His only brother, Lawrence Segel, died before him.

Please direct your memorial donations to Edward B. Segel Scholarship Fund at Reed College.

Tags: Obituaries, Teachers, Reed’s story

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