(Not so) Retiring Professors

Ed Segel : History’s Ambassador

[History, 1973–2011]

By Raymond Rendleman ’06
Ed Segel

Ed Segel may have retired, but as his former students throng the corridors of power in ever greater numbers, his sphere of influence is expanding.

Born and raised in Boston, Ed graduated from Harvard in 1960, received his PhD at UC Berkeley, and came to Reed in 1973, where he earned a reputation as a passionate teacher who prompted his students to think about the Big Questions. Generations of history majors have heard the unwritten rule that, even if your main interest lies in China or Ancient Greece, you should take at least one class from Ed.

Ed’s primary interests lie in diplomatic history, 19th- and 20th-century Europe, and the Cold War, and he exemplifies the tendency of Reed historians to immerse themselves in their subject.

Ed’s lifetime was part and parcel of the very coursework he taught. His personal connections extended to figures like Henry Kissinger, from whom he took a course at Harvard, and Berkeley professor Raymond Sontag, who acted as mentor for both him and U.S. diplomat George Kennan. These connections enriched his scholarship on the doctrine of containment and other diplomatic topics.

Ed developed courses on the Cold War and on Vietnam, which was especially personal for Ed because three of his college classmates were killed in the conflict. He took particular pride in his humanities lectures on Beethoven and Mozart.

Ed strives to enter the mindset of diplomats and public alike, following his mentor Sontag, seeking to weave together the domestic and diplomatic strands of history (encapsulated in his infamous Segel’s Laws, namely, 1. All problems are essentially problems of diplomatic history, and 2. Always save room for dessert).

Ed’s mentor at Reed was John Tomsich [history 1962–99], and Ed says he always tried to match John’s subtlety of thought and mastery of a broad scope of historical movements. Both 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,” says 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.”

“Ed was one of the best teachers I had, and I might not have succeeded in my first year at Reed without his wise and patient counsel,” says Marianne Brogan ’84. “And, of course, his humanities conferences were the best.” (Marianne is now a member of Ed’s pool crew, along with Jon Rivenburg [director of institutional research 1988–2010], and John Colgrove ’86 [assistant registrar 1987–].)

Ed also left his mark on Reed, working behind the scenes (naturally) to soften an “academic boot-camp” mentality that he felt contributed to the college’s high attrition rate. He also served as the faculty’s resident parliamentarian, often being called on to apply Robert’s Rules of Order to sometimes contentious debates.

Debonair, droll, and a devoted Anglophile and monarchist, Ed took deep interest in his students’ lives, often inviting them over to his house for a game of pool over a pint of Bass or taking them to the opera. He also was a faculty connection to students in campus gay and other groups.  An accomplished pianist and lyricist, he has written a number of lyrics for the Portland Gay Mens’ Chorus, several of which have been recorded on CD. Students’ esteem for Ed may be gauged by the fact that last year, the history majors played in the Renn Fayre softball tournament under the name Flock of Segels.

“I’m always happy if my students go on to become PhDs in their turn,” he says. “But what I really want them to do is go out and take over the world.”

For all his wide-ranging interests, it is membership in the Reed community that he holds most dear. Immediately following his retirement, the alumni office invited him to go on a “victory tour” around the country, delivering his classic lecture on Vietnam to alumni. He welcomes old friends and students to keep in touch via segel@reed.edu, an address he intends to maintain in perpetuity.