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Historian of the Big Questions

Prof. Edward Barton Segel [history 1973–2011]

September 30, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.

Whether the subject was Beethoven or Vietnam, Aristotle or the Cold War, Prof. Ed Segel’s sparkling lectures inspired generations of students. For a remarkable 38 years, from 1973 to 2011, he taught history and humanities at Reed, always prompting his students to consider the Big Questions. His academic domain was European diplomatic history, in particular the relations between the European great powers from the late 18th century to the present. But his passion lay in seeing his students succeed.

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

Segel grew up in a primarily Jewish neighborhood in inner-city Boston. “Ed was quick to point out that his birthday was on Christmas Day,” remembered Leslie Vickers Jones ’83. “I can still hear him say, ‘And my mother’s name was Mary!’” Having immigrated from London, his mother vividly remembered the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, when she was a child.

“I think that started his fascination with the British monarchy and the British royal family,” said Prof. Jay Dickson [English]. “His house on Southeast Rural Road had all kinds of royal memorabilia in it—a framed poster announcing the 1947 honeymoon cruise of Princess Elizabeth and Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; christening spoons to commemorate the marriages of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. He also had prominently displayed in his living room an old British tin chocolate box with his great hero, Sir Winston Churchill’s portrait on it. He was an unabashed Anglophile.”

Indeed, Segel hosted an annual Fourth of July barbecue, called “Poor Old George III,” to mourn the secession of the Thirteen Colonies from the British, and some wondered if he didn’t have something of a British accent, perhaps from the year he spent at Oxford.

“Ed seemed to speak with a rhotacism, which made it hard for him to pronounce his r sounds (which thus made it especially difficult for him to give directions to the street he lived on, Rural Road),” Dickson said. “He told me that Barbara Walters grew up in the same primarily Jewish inner Boston neighborhood he did, although they never actually met. I have always thought his seeming rhotacism was like hers and that likely it was due more to their having the same accent than that they had actual speech impediments.”

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 his junior year. Henry Kissinger was one of his Harvard professors. Between college and graduate school, he did a yearlong fellowship at Oxford University in England.

Segel earned both an MA and a PhD in history from UC Berkeley, where he was mentored by Raymond Sontag, an advocate of a policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War. As a professor, Segel developed courses on both the Cold War and the Vietnam War, which was particularly personal for him because three of his college classmates were killed in the conflict.

He was appointed to the faculty at UC Berkeley and taught there from 1965 to 1973. “To put it all in one sentence,” he said, “I didn’t publish, so I perished. In 1972–73 I applied for academic jobs and was very lucky to come to a place like Reed, which does not emphasize publication as much as teaching.”

Beginning at Reed in the fall of ’73, Segel taught history and humanities. His primary academic interests were diplomatic history of the 19th and 20th centuries, European history, and intellectual history in the European mode. Like his mentor Sontag, he sought to weave the strands of domestic and diplomatic history by entering the mindset of diplomats and the public. One of “Segel’s Laws” held that all problems are essentially problems of diplomatic history. (A less scholarly law was “Always save room for dessert.”)

He also lectured on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, Beethoven, Vietnam, and everything in between, taking particular pride in 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 broad scope of historical movements Segel strove to match. Both men served long terms as chair of the history department.

“Ed was the ideal professor for humanities, given his broad interests from opera and literature to, of course, history,” said Peter Goodman ’89. “He drew on the entirety of human experience in choosing how to present the texts we confronted, and he encouraged us to use the readings as jumping-off points for the biggest questions that could 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 watched the returns with friends and went to bed, pretty certain that John Kerry would lose. She awoke the next morning in a state of despair, confirmed that Bush had won the election, and made her way to the 9 a.m. Hum 220 lecture.

“I walked across the campus to the psych auditorium and will always remember how quiet campus was that morning,” she said. “People were walking to class together but not speaking. It felt like walking through a graveyard. We took our seats, and Ed stood at the lectern, looking down at his notes. He was about to start lecturing, then he stopped. ‘I know that many of you must be disappointed by last night,’ he said. ‘Sometimes it is good to live inside a bubble.’”

When he was at Berkeley, Segel began seeing a therapist for being gay. “I then believed, like practically everybody else outside of the movement itself, that being gay is in some sense abnormal,” he remembered. He found a psychiatrist who in their first conversation admitted, “I do have trouble accepting homosexuality.”

“If I knew then what I know now, I’d have gotten up and walked out,” he said. “He was giving me a sales job to change. But since I wanted to change, that seemed okay at the time. Later, I realized it was a very bad therapeutic approach, because he should have been neutral, rather than cheer me on that way. The positive side of that is that after about three years, when I realized that I like myself the way I am and that means liking myself as gay, I didn’t do that because of his urging. I did it the other way round, against his urging. So, in a way, that made my own decision more authentic.”

Segel said he was “more or less” openly gay when he came to Reed. “The openness increased as time went on,” he said. “At first, I was a little nervous about being out on campus, and then I realized that some gay students at Berkeley whom I knew had called up gay friends of theirs at Reed and said, ‘There’s this young guy, Ed Segel, coming up. Say hello to him.’ So, they knew about me before I got here. And then I kept running into them at the gay bars. So much for having a cover. I realized, there’s just no point.”

He recalled that when he arrived at Reed, the 10-member faculty advisory committee had three members who were gay. “They weren’t out in that they didn’t talk about gay issues, but everybody knew, and they knew that everybody knew,” he said. “So, the atmosphere was quite tolerant, quite accepting.”

“Ed was openly gay at a time when this was rather rare in academia,” said Prof. Matt Pearson ’92 [linguistics]. “He was an early patron of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, and an avid faculty supporter of successive generations of queer student groups on campus. In the early years, even in a city like Portland and at a college like Reed, that took guts. Today’s generation of queer Reed faculty owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Prof. Dickson remembered Segel as one of the kindest and most caring teachers at Reed, to whom many gay students came for mentorship and advice. “During a time in the ’70s and ’80s , in particular, where it was not easy to be openly gay, his homosexuality was well known to students and to faculty alike (although he would always speak of it in extremely dignified terms—he would refer to himself winkingly as ‘a gentleman of a certain character’). Gay students in particular knew he was someone to offer advice about the tricky question of negotiating a gay identity in a college where the dominant culture was not only heterosexual, but also sometimes homophobic.”

In addition to being named an honorary lifetime member of the Gay Men’s Chorus, Segel 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, spearheaded by Lucien L. Foster ’95, Nelson Minar ’94, and Behzad Khosrowshahi ’91, established the Ed Segel Scholarship.

“Ed influenced me during my four years at the college and guided me afterwards,” said Lucien, who heads digital partnerships for BNY Mellon. “That makes a professor very special.”

An interdisciplinary major in history and literature, Lucien also hit it off with Segel philosophically. The two enjoyed occasional nights at the opera, dined out together, and Segel advised Lucien on everything from career moves to personal relationships with girlfriends, both during and after college. “His advice was incredibly valuable, and he continued to be an important player in my life as I went forward,” Lucien said.

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

Ed’s only brother, Lawrence Segel, predeceased him. Memorial donations may be made to the Edward B. Segel Student Scholarship Fund at Reed College.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2021

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