Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

Prof. Charles Svitavsky [English 1961–98]

January 5, 2019, in Carnation, Washington.

Prof. Charles Svitavsky began acting when he was a seventh grader in Racine, Wisconsin. He later admitted, “I have a streak of ham in me a yard wide.” That showmanship would serve him well as a beloved professor delivering humanities lectures at Reed.

After serving in World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Wabash College. Specializing in 19th-century literature, he got a master’s degree from Columbia University, studied comparative literature at the University of Paris, and earned a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Svitavsky taught at Ripon College, the University of Washington, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he chaired the English department.

In 1961, he came to Reed as a professor of English and humanities from the University of Wisconsin. There were about 600 students when he arrived at Reed, most of whom he could identify by sight. He knew most faculty members by name.

“That made for an environment where there was a real community,” he remembered. “The faculty and the students were on the same wavelength; there was a sense of what institutional purpose was and people were much more forceful about articulating it.”

Reflecting on the change in student behavior during his years at Reed, he said, “In the ’60s, when I walked into class in the morning and said, ‘Good morning,’ the students wrote it down. When I walked in and said ‘Good morning’ in the ’70s, students would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that, it doesn’t seem that good to me.’”

In the late 1980s, Prof. Svitavsky had just returned to his office from a Hum lecture when there was a knock at his door. Seeing six students standing there, his first reaction was that he must have blown the lecture somehow. But they just wanted to let him know they thought he had just given a terrific lecture. 

Nothing like that ever happened in the ’60s or the ’70s,” he reflected. “I think students are nicer. They seem to me to be more human, and more concerned on an individual basis with one another, and indeed with the faculty in this respect than they were in the past. Reed has never been a place where you got much praise.”

An expert on Shakespeare (one of his students was Steve Jobs), he acted in some 15 Shakespeare productions, including two at Reed, where he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Duke Senior in As You Like It. The Oregonian lauded his performance in a 1969 Portland Center Stage production of The Crucible, where he played Deputy Gov. Danforth, who conducted the trials. He appeared in several segments of the public television series Great Plays in Rehearsal, and in 1977 played a detective in the television horror film The Possessed, which starred Harrison Ford. Much of the film, about a priest who returns from the dead to battle satanic forces at an all-girls school, was filmed at Reed. 

In addition to acting, Svitavsky enjoyed golfing and painting. His wife, Shirley, survives him, as does his son, David.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2019

comments powered by Disqus