Congratulatory messages from those unable to attend Mr. Shagam's celebration, remembrances and appreciations from alumni, and notes from other friends...
The tributes to Mr. Shagam below are organized into three sections:
1. Congratulatory Messages from Those Unable to Attend
2. Remembrances and Appreciations from CdeP
3. Remembrances and Appreciations from Other Friends
1. Congratulatory Messages from Those Unable to Attend
I was a student of Marvin's when he just started as a young teacher (Class of '58). I think most of my class will remember Mr. Shagam as a teacher with passion whose favorite interests were current events (nee Civics), off-the-mainstream music, and a peculiar interest in a swami of some religion near Thacher, whom some seniors saw on a field trip. My memory of this is vague, but this was clearly not anything like the Christianity we were used to. We didn't know whether to be bored, freaked out, or interested. Marvin, you always did march to a different drum, but now as a Head of two schools over 19 years, I realize that if a school did not have a Marvin Shagam, it would have to invent one. It was part of the liberal tradition about the stretching power of different ideas. Thank you for opening some of our eyes and those of two generations of boys, and later girls. You are indeed, Sir, a consummate schoolman who cared about kids and exciting ideas. Congratulations on a long and worthwhile career doing good things. And, trivia question: Do you remember your Civics lesson on a Cuban revolutionary named Masferrer?
—John Meehl CdeP 1958
Mr. Shagam, I can't believe you have been giving of yourself to Thacher students for 50 years. That also means that I am getting older, too...and, hopefully, wiser. I must have been much younger when we first met.
I have always treasured the times we spent together, for there was an energy that radiated from you. I know that you have touched others as you have touched me. I am unable to get to School on your 50th to celebrate and honor you. I am looking forward to seeing you at Thacher in the near future.
—Casey Escher CdeP 1961
Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, but please convey my best wishes, congratulations, and admiration to “Mr. Shagam.” He had a major impact on my life and I frequently remember things he taught me.
—Bill Kellogg CdeP 1969
Your gentle, thoughtful manner has always been a guideline for me when searching out great people and great minds. Thank you for your special gift.
—Kathelee Banister CdeP 1979
So sorry, Kirk and I will not be able to join you! Please pass on my best regards to Mr. Shagam on this milestone—an ICON of Thacher to me, and one so erudite, passionate and humble—a true Gentleman with a Servant Heart. Thank you. P.S. I still know (most of) the words to the Middle School song! Not that I can translate it!
—Coco (Trumbull) Mueller CdeP 1981
Our heartiest CONGRATULATIONS to you upon celebrating 50 years at Thacher! How fortunate the students have been to receive your loving care and guidance throughout those years.
It was in September 1979, when we first arrived at Thacher with our son, Kurt, who was placed in the old Upper School building. You were one of the first people we met at Thacher, and even with our apprehension of a first child leaving home, your friendliness, calmness, and caring left us feeling we had made the right choice of schools for our son's education.
Of course, Kurt and Kris had tremendous life-changing experiences and unparalleled educations during their years at Thacher thanks to the marvelous and dedicated staff and surrounded by those beautiful mountains. Thank you for your selfless contribution to all of the young people with whom you came in contact.
—Ken and Ann Andersen, parents of Kurt CdeP 1981 and Kris CdeP 1983
Congratulations to Marvin Shagam on 50 years at Thacher. I loved his political science classes so much that I decided to major in it in college, only to find that none of the classes could compare to his and I changed my major my sophomore year. I was also one of his prefects in Upper School, where I considered him a mentor. His sense of humor—both in and out of class—is awesome. Again congratulations and thanks for being there!
—Laura Johnson CdeP 1983
Dear Mr. Shagam,
Although I no longer chant Latin verse every night, your lessons of life are still with me. In particular I will always remember the example you set of being genuinely interested in your students and your universal kindness. You also taught me to look at the World with an open mind and to think for myself even when I am in a mad mob of fellow sports fans cheering our team to victory. Finally, I know you still feel bad about me getting bitten while walking your dog Caesar and breaking up the dog fight between him and Marlow. Please rest assured that you have always had my forgiveness; please do not ask me (like you always do) to forgive you next time I see you. Regardless, you are still my favorite teacher!
Congratulations on 50 years at Thacher!
—Randy Bessolo CdeP 1983
I would love to come to Mr. Shagam's celebration, but unfortunately I am in New York and won't be able to make it up! :( He was my Latin teacher for my three years at Thacher and I will never forget his Latin lessons and his advice. I remember the first day of class he told the two of us at the time that he spoke 21 languages. Of course, he had us guessing until the end and he finally revealed his mastery of linguistics!
I wish him 50 more years of great success and happiness!
—Serena Chang CdeP 1995
Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend the event honoring Mr. Shagam. I do remember that he was the favorite of my daughter, Erin, and that she told me that the most valuable things she learned from him had nothing to do with Latin (although Latin was wonderful and inspiring, as well). This is the mark of a truly gifted educator, and Thacher and its community should be so happy to have had his contribution for the past 50 years.
—Jeri Johnson, parent of Erin Johnson CdeP 2001
Regrettably, neither Peter nor I can attend this momentous occasion. I am sure it will be one for the books. One of Peter's big regrets is that Mr. Shagam was on sabbatical the two years Peter was at Thacher—so he never had a class with him!
Thank you for making a big hoopla for Mr. Shagam; he is definitely hoopla worthy!
—Alexandra and Peter Jordan CdeP 1968, parents of Andrew Jordan CdeP 2007
I regret that I will not be able to attend the celebration of Marvin Shagam’s 50 years at Thacher. His profound gifts as a person and teacher graced so many of our lives. I will be celebrating Marvin in my heart!
—Allie Barbey CdeP 2008
We won't be able to attend but, Sophie will be there. Our congratulations and warmest wishes to Mr. Shagam.
—Bonnie and Hasani Subiram, parents of Sophie CdeP 2010
It is valuable for a young teacher to have a "seasoned master" available for mentoring. Upon arrival at Thacher in 1969 I was fortunate to have available a few masters of many years experience, one of whom was Marvin Shagam.
The first important influence on me was Marvin's "call to service," for him a life-long attribute. Marvin had established an association with an elementary school in San Quintin, Baja. During Spring Breaks he would take a group of boys (pre-coed) and equipment to support the children of the village. For some reason Marvin was unable to make the trip my second year and prevailed on Steve Griggs and me to take over the enterprise. It necessitated my obtaining a bus driver's license (which was of use during my career at Thacher). I drove the small "lady bug" type bus and Steve drove a crew cab and trailer with our wives and two pre-school children down the unpaved Baja road for an adventure that was as beneficial to us as to the recipients: a truism of most service involvements. We camped out at the hacienda of the village patron, Don Luis Bernstein (the history of Mexicans with Jewish names is interesting). I am sure, and hope, that some of the student members who participated in the San Quintin project will express their thoughts.
During the late sixties and early seventies, Marvin also took students on a regular basis to the psychiatric hospital in Camarillo that also had a section for severely developmental disabled young people (teen-aged and above). Marvin discussed the possibility of a "field trip" to Golden Trout Camp. After going through all the bureaucracy channels, the members of my climbing program and other students who had participated in the weekly visits escorted a group of about ten members of the Camarillo facility (again the bus license came in handy). The Thacher students returned to school in late August for an unforgettable experience. Upon returning to Camarillo, the Camarillo staff reported that the participants were able to maintain emotional stability for over a week without receiving medications, an unanticipated and surprising result of the three-day outdoor experience. Plans were afoot for future such outings, but unfortunately, newly elected Governor Reagan reduced the budgets for such California hospitals. We now know the results of that policy in terms of a major segment of the "homeless."
Thacher's commitment to supporting the efforts of eligible youth from the inner city achieve a high-level education, to "escape the streets," is due in some part to Marvin's commitment to the civil rights movement. As a consequence, the GTC became the site for an addition to the program of Outward Bound Adventures for which I became the "guide." I made several long-time friends among the counselors and "kids" as a consequence of that program. It is still operating.
It may seem that the above descriptions are about my participation, but I re-emphasize that it was totally due to Marvin's commitment to service and his "commandeering" me to help that this dimension was added to my, and my family's life.
In conclusion I learned to always listen to Marvin's advice. When I first came to Thacher my family took a hiking trip across the Sierras. Marvin gave my wife a charm from a folk religion in Haiti that had been blessed and she was instructed to take it on the trip. She forgot it; during the trip she developed severe ankle blisters that made it painful to walk with hiking boots. We were not sure why this happened but Marvin did!!
2. Remembrances and Appreciations from CdeP
This celebration is a not-so-gentle reminder of my advancing age since my “Marvin memories” span his entire tenure at Thacher. His passion for teaching, his incredible kindness and patience in helping students navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence, and his love of life has had a lasting effect on me and our three sons:
——Ted CdeP 1987, Jim CdeP 1990, and Chris CdeP 1997.
My earliest memory of Marvin is also a favorite. He came to Casa de Piedra my junior year and we played on the same recess baseball team. As Captain, I was in charge of position assignments and we quickly determined that Marvin was considerably “baseball challenged.” Our competitive instincts overcame our deference to newly-arrived faculty so he was designated our roving centerfielder. Fly balls to center field would trigger a confused dance, wherein Marvin would use his throwing hand to anchor his signature cap and fully extend his mitt hand to try to intercept the ball. The other outfielders would scramble wildly to try to get to the ball before Marvin, and when it would fall to the ground untouched, they would mercifully make the throw to the infield so that he was not faced with the decision to grab the ball or keep his cap attached.
A recess baseball team assigned faculty at the bottom of the skill chart who had a tendency to rue their luck, but, not so with Marvin. His enthusiasm and positive spirit quickly earned his stripes as a valuable team member. As the season wore on he became a contributor on the field, as well. We had no clue that our new instructor was a legend in the making, but it was clear that he came from a different mold.
—Randy Labbe CdeP 1960
What I remember of Mr. Shagam is how much he gave. He took several of us to Mexico over spring break. And it was quite an adventure. Two moments that stand out for me were the night we were driving behind a weaving drunk driver. He would honk at him to warn him every time it looked as though he might drive off the road.
The other memory I have is the dive Jim Whitney took in that restaurant where he passed out. He went flat onto the floor after first hitting his head on a table. Fortunately, the table moved and so he was not badly hurt (or else his head was very, very hard). We all got sick which makes it all the more wondrous that I recall these memories with great fondness for Mr. Shagam. I certainly shall be there to enjoy greeting him and enjoying the ambience of CdeP again, fifty years later.
—Gregor Weitzel CdeP 1960
I remember when Marvin Shagam arrived at Thacher. Our class had
returned to campus for our Lower Upper year. With much curiosity, we
took stock of the new faculty members. We were accustomed to seeing
the Thacher teaching corps replenished periodically by youthful novices
fresh out of college, eager to get their first real work experiences by
instructing us in what they had lately learned. It usually took us no
more than a year to convince them that their real calling lay elsewhere.
Mr. Shagam, however, did not fit the usual mold; and he was much harder
for us to size up. We could only guess that he was somewhere between
20 and 40. We knew that Thacher wasn’t his first job. Our guesses
about his prior experience ranged from a previous stint in teaching to
a career in the CIA. I don’t think we ever learned the truth.
He was a study in contradictions. Although he seemed a shy, bookish
intellectual, he took readily to Thacher’s outdoor lifestyle, and even
its cowboy culture. Modest and unassuming, he seemed entirely devoid
of vanity, with the singular exception of his fairly obvious
comb-over. Slight and apparently reticent, he nevertheless entered
into physical activity with eagerness. He was reputed once, during
recess softball, to have slid into home so forcefully that, as his cap
flew off, his hair rose and his pate was revealed.
Somewhere along the way we gave him the nickname “Spike.” I don’t know
the origin or meaning of this soubriquet. It certainly had no negative
connotations. Still, out of respect, and a growing affection, for him,
we did not use it to his face, but saved it for references to him out
of his hearing.
As a teacher, his real genius lay in stimulating our thinking, rather
than filling us with facts and methods. We were encouraged to question
our assumptions and re-evaluate received wisdom. We were encouraged,
and even compelled, to think independently.
Mr. Shagam never stopped teaching, and he was always accessible.
Whether in or out of the classroom, and whatever the subject, he was
always adding to the range of our knowledge and stimulating our own
inquiries. I remember one discussion concerning musical preferences.
Mine at that time were fairly well limited to the three B’s. I made
some patronizing remark about Mozart; I think I called his music
“charming.” Mr. Shagam quickly insisted that there was far more to
Mozart than I had yet discovered, and he urged me to keep an open
mind. Now, whenever I enjoy listening to The Magic Flute or the D
minor piano concerto, I am so grateful that he encouraged me to expand
Discussions with Mr. Shagam were usually both stimulating and
delightful. At first, he appeared intense, serious, and cerebral. As
we became more involved in the conversation, he became more lively and
animated. Then, without any warning, and barely cracking a smile, he
would come out with some outrageous joke or painful pun, which usually
effectively summarized our discussion.
I was fortunate to have Mr. Shagam as my track coach (he also coached
me on the fourth soccer team, but that part of my athletic career at
Thacher I have tried to forget). He helped me develop as a distance
runner and achieve some modest success, in considerable contrast to
other sports I tried. Running has remained a part of my life ever
since. Even now, fifty years on, I rarely miss a good morning run to
start my day.
My other extended exposure to Mr. Shagam came during the spring
vacation of his first year, when he took a group of us on a trip to
Mexico. As I recall, the trip was first suggested by one of the boys,
who then asked him to lead the trip. He agreed, giving up his own
vacation; and for two weeks, he drove the Thacher van, with four or
five of us on board, from Ojai to Mexico City and back. Of course,
school rules prohibited any of us from driving; so the burden fell
entirely on him. We planned to camp out as much as possible, and we
actually succeeded in finding reasonably remote spots to camp most
nights, including one unforgettable deserted beach. One night,
however, we couldn’t find a place to stop; so we just drove on through
the night. I recall sitting in the front seat during that night
listening to Mr. Shagam explain something of his personal philosophy of
individual integrity and social responsibility. Eventually, we reached
Mexico City, where we splurged on some rooms in a modest hotel, viewed
the Riveras and Orozcos, and toured the nearby pyramids at San Juan
Teotihuacan. I still have on my desk a little black obsidian figurine
I bought from a vendor on that trip.
I want to conclude with recalling the aspect of Mr. Shagam’s part in
our school life that made the deepest impression on me. That was the
matter of the “honor system” and the “oath” that was a part of it.
Under the system as it was then in place, we took our exams without
proctors. We were required, however, to write out on the front of the
exam book a declaration “on my honor as a gentleman” that we had not
received any outside help, or cheated in any other way, and then to
sign our names.
This era—the late 50’s--was shortly after the intense controversy over
“loyalty oaths,” which had been established at many levels of
government following the hunt for communists most notably associated
with Senator Joseph McCarthy. For many thoughtful people, the demand
that a citizen declare his loyalty in express terms in order to get a
government job carried with it an implication that his fidelity was
suspect and that he could not otherwise be trusted to be anything but
For Mr. Shagam, the oaths required of us for our exam booklets under
the honor system were objectionable in much same way as the loyalty
oaths. It seemed to him that they implied we could not be trusted to
be honest unless we declared, in writing and under compulsion, that we
were so. It took considerable courage for him, as a new faculty
member, to express his convictions on this point. Doing so required
him to debate some well-established teachers, whose convictions were as
strong as his.
As students, we might not have thought about the values that were at
stake had he not raised his objections to the oath. The intense
discussion over the oath taught us invaluable lessons about an
individual’s relationship to society and about what it means for one to
take responsibility for one’s own personal integrity and intrinsic
honesty. I have never forgotten those lessons. They have helped guide
me in my life and my career. For them, I will always be grateful to
—James C. Whitney CdeP 1960 A memorable vision of Marvin Shagam: Caught in the Act!
Mr. Shagam had arrived in our midst. We were mostly tailor-made young cowboys, stretching new, wide-brimmed hats over wide-eyed heads, stretching new, fresh leather pointed boots over rounded feet, stretching new hemp or nylon ropes around corral gates. And now we were being asked to stretch our acceptances to a most unusual new teacher.
After the dust settled we saw Mr. Marvin Shagam—his welcoming smile, his pigeon-toed, somewhat awkward stance on a skinny frame, a peculiar Scottish styled cap covering hair combed forward to cover a balding head, thick glasses. This was hardly the image we expected at a rough-and-ready, shovel-your-own, rattlesnake-tested boys’ school. Mr. Shagam struggled to find his niche while we struggled to keep up with his very bright mind.
Nobody knew much about his background. His reputed claim to fame had been testing gas masks for the Army while running the mile. Nobody knew, that is, until after Easter vacation. The first day back a buzz swept across campus: Mr. Shagam had been caught in a bank robbery! Seems he had no better place to spend his own Easter vacation than right at Thacher. With time on his hands Mr. Shagam happened to be in Ojai, in the bank, waiting patiently in line. Along came another customer, bursting through the front door, gun in hand, and loudly announcing a hold-up. Panic ensued; people dropped to the floor—all except for Marvin Shagam. We boys speculated it may have been because he was cleaning his thick glasses and could not see the action. Mr. Shagam, so the story goes, spun around, seized the robber, threw him to the floor and pinned him until the Sheriff’s posse arrived.
You see, it seems Marvin Shagam had taught hand-to-hand combat and self-defense in the Army prior to arriving at Thacher. There were no further questions asked. Marvin Shagam became an instant god on campus. Boys lined up to see if he would teach self-defense tactics in the Rough-House. Mr. Shagam was universally welcomed as a soccer coach, a track coach, an advisor on Sespe horse and mule trips, a caring and thoughtful teacher, and my friend.
—Chris Ferrer CdeP 1961
Please convey my very best wishes…and congratulations…to Mr. Shagam
(even though I'm 65, he'll always be "Mr. Shagam")…on the occasion of
this weekend's celebration…he was a wonderful teacher and person…always
encouraging students to see other perspectives…probably what today
might be called "thinking outside the box"…and holds a fond place, I'm
sure, in the hearts of his many former students…with best wishes,
—Bill Slattery CdeP 1961
Marvin Shagam enriched our lives in so many ways it is hard to enumerate them. He always was integrity incarnate, yet never lost his sense of humor and has the quickest mind of anyone I know. One of his biggest gifts to us was to encourage us to question authority and not believe everything we read, but to try to find out as many sides of any issue and then make up our own minds.
I don’t think that "coquettish" is quite the right word, but he loved to tease us and lead us on to draw out a request for something we wanted, usually a story or a performance of some kind. We knew we had succeeded (as had he) when he would ask, "Do you COMPELL me, then?" And, speaking of performances, no one who ever heard it can ever forget his rendition (in French) of a song that began with: "Allo, allo, James, dis la nouvelle," accompanying himself on the piano. I wouldn't ever want to hear it performed by anyone else, ever; it was perfection. I am looking forward to the 4th of October.
—Bruce Donnell CdeP 1963
My fondest memory of Mr. Shagam (he will always be a Mister even though I am 61) is the way he generated a viral passion for learning. He made Latin so exciting. Today, 48 years later, I still have that passion. It’s not Latin anymore, but Internet security, Web technologies, and network design. Yes, I still have the passion for learning. Right now I am studying for an upcoming Cisco exam on intrusion discovery, reporting, and alerting. I am still in the academic game, albeit one of professional certification.
As I sit here with my laptop working on my study notes, I look back fondly on my times in Study Hall. Yes, it was Mr. Shagam who made even that exciting. Now during my study time I use laptops, cloud computing, and MS Office 2007 OneNote as opposed to books and pencils. With my nose buried in the nuances of IP protocol attack signatures and mitigation responses, my mind harkens back to Study Hall and those wooden desks. It was Mr. Shagam, who blessed me with the spirit of curiosity, study, and achievement.
I remember how I won the best Latin student in the first quarter. A few other guys (they had no female students then), Mr. Shagam and I went to the newly opened Hearst Castle. Mr. Shagam was one of the first to own a VW bus. I remember being quite impressed; I bought one five years later.
Finally, if you goofed off in class Mr. Shagam had you come up to his apartment. You were forced to listen to Chinese opera and not laugh. You were required to keep a totally straight face.
For every guy who had something on his mind, the door was always open to his apartment. It was from him that I discovered Jack Kerouac, the Dharma Bums, and Buddhist compassion.
On October 4th I will be in the Netherland Antilles on a consulting job for Internet security. My heart will be with Mr. Shagam on his special day. I don’t expect him to remember me, but I remember him.
“All Gaul is divided into three parts.”
—Stuart Erskine CdeP 1964
I remember returning from a camping trip in Marvin’s VW Bus with a bunch of other smuts in the spring of 1962. As we were coming back down the Matilija Pass, we found ourselves behind a pick-up truck with another bunch of rowdy teen-aged boys piled in the back. They started spitting at us; some of their efforts splattered on our windshield. As Sam Eaton, Jock Hayward, and I do not remember who else contemplated retaliation (I am not sure what we could have had in mind), Marvin, without a word….calmly turned on the windshield wipers.
—Woody Halsey CdeP 1965
I do have more than a few Marvin stories, but one, the night Marvin took a Volkswagen busload of us down to LA to see the first Rolling Stones concert in LA stands out. He did this because we accepted his challenge and successfully listened to a Chinese music cut without giggling. The concert was indoors and the screaming overwhelmed the Stone's music. When Marvin walked out of the arena, I was sure that he was disgusted by the mass histrionics. I followed him out only to find him engaged in conversation with a group of attractive young ladies. He was not the least bit put off by the scene. Just the opposite: he was curious to learn why this brand of rock 'n roll drew such a response. In the end he loved the concert, although I would be somewhat surprised if he has any Stones records.
—Kit Collins CdeP 1966
I am sorry that I cannot make it to the celebration, but I have the most positive memories of Mr. Shagam so I wanted to share my feelings about him in honor of his extraordinary contribution to the School.
Marvin Shagam was an important mentor and role model in my life. His influence is still with me in many ways. He is a gentle man, a man of letters, a man of principle, and a man of wit. Marvin taught me that it was OK to be gentle, smart, and funny, and that is no small thing. In a testimonial such as this, one might choose to reflect on his extraordinary kindness or intellect, but I would rather focus on the real measure of a man: his sense of humor.
Marvin always had a gentle smile on his face, and a wicked pun on his lips. Marvin Shagam introduced me to the fine art of word play, and it got under my skin like a tick after a long ride up the canyon. I found the pass time of verbal sparring so irresistible that I must confess I have left a trail of tortured and long-suffering friends and family members in my wake. To make matters worse, I seek the company of those of similar persuasion. Years of practice have made me a formidable punster in my own right, and there can be no doubt that it all began with Marvin.
On most evenings, Mr. Shagam would hold court at one of the big, round plywood tables in the dining hall, just itching to do battle. He kept his powder dry, and then, when his powder horn seemed positively desiccated, the word games would begin. It was a rare occasion when a student would leave Marvin at a loss for a counter-pun. Being vanquished by such a master punster was a high honor. Generations of us were eager cannon fodder, stepping forward to match wit for wit with him. Little did we know that he was exercising our sense of humor in a calculated game of mental gymnastics.
Marvin's seed grew into a peculiar obsession for me. I collect "mixed metaphors," which occur when people mix colloquial sayings of similar gist in ways that unintentionally suggest absurd imagery. This may sound like an esoteric preoccupation to you, but it is a fascinating window into the human brain to me. Sometimes we reach in the bin of handy phrases and grab the front end of one saying and the back end of another. Everyone knows what we meant, but it makes no sense literally.
The best mixed metaphors are formed unconsciously and without premeditation. One of my colleagues once blurted out "no sense spilling good milk after bad," an amalgamation of "no sense crying over spilled milk" and "no sense throwing good money after bad." My mother often said, "it's not everybody's teabag," a synthesis of "it's not everybody's cup of tea" and "it's not my bag." A television ad proclaimed “nobody can hold a match to Champion Ford,” which I will leave as an exercise for you to deconstruct, but it sounds like arson to me! I have collected hundreds of these delightful aberrations, and hope to publish a book some day.
So you see, Marvin Shagam's influence is still with me. The little acorn he planted with his impish puns has grown into a mighty oak. This all may seem silly to some, but I now know that it is the small things in life which really matter in the long run. My sense of humor underpins my personal and professional relationships, and is without a doubt one of the cornerstones of whatever success I can lay claim to in my life.
Thanks Marvin...I wish I could be there to shake your hand...and see that gentle smile again.
—Kristian Meisling CdeP 1971
Memory from my first year: You and I sitting in my study of an evening pondering how to handle the latest crisis. "A friend in need is a friend indeed."
—Ted Sanford, Former Thacher Headmaster, parent of Timothy CdeP 1972
I've one story to share.... Mr. Shagam is one of the most respected teachers at The Thacher School. He inspired us to think intellectually and independently. He would ask thought-provoking questions in his class.
I still remember one of his questions to this day. He asked: "What would you do if you were walking down the street and someone came up to you and hit you on the face?" Depending on your answer, he would ask another question which would require you to think further before you dared to answer.
As I'm driving on the freeway to and from work each day, from time to time some rude person cuts me off or tailgates me. Rather than cursing at the offending driver, I remember Mr. Shagam's question which helps to calm me down and avoid any road rage.
Thank you for the invitation and I look forward to being there. Best wishes to Mr. Shagam!
—Boun Ly CdeP 1973
I am most disappointed not to be able to attend the celebration of
Marvin Shagam's 50 years at Thacher this weekend, but I thought I would
send a brief story that has remained with me for lo these 37 years
since second year Latin in Mr. Shagam's classroom.
The Class of 1973 was one of unusual academic excellence, though I was
one of its least disciplined members, as evidenced by my graduating in
the fourth quintile of the class. That this was enough to get me into
Yale gives you some idea of how the other boys in the class were doing.
In any case, several months into our sophomore year, I found myself
engaged in a tooth and nail competition with one of the best students
in the entire class for the top grade in Latin. I believe I was the
only one who knew there was a competition afoot, because I was the only
one departing from my usual habits. I was studying every single night.
This was not generalized studying, I hasten to add, but only for Latin.
I got an "A" every day. For reasons still unclear to me, even now as a
psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I was then completely obsessed with my
daily "A," and somewhat relatedly, with learning Latin. This was the
first time in my life that had I tried to do well in something formal,
and I was giving it my all.
One day, Marvin Shagam introduced us to the demonstrative pronoun, Hic
Haec Hoc. He also revealed his ability to recite all 30 forms of it in
under 5 seconds, and asserted that few if any had ever beaten him at
this challenge. He offered a reward of a choice between an additional
"A" for the day or a steak dinner to any taker who could successfully
decline the pronoun faster. I was determined to do it, and repaired to
my room in the Middle School to start working on the project. After a
week or so of assiduous practice, I was ready to take on Mr. Shagam. He
brought a tape recorder and a stopwatch to class on the fateful day.
Each word had to be distinct and correct. We took turns declining Hic
Haec Hoc furiously into the tape recorder, and then listened to the
playback for accuracy, and finally applied the stopwatch. He judged,
probably correctly, that I had beaten him by a split second, and this
did not completely displease him.
He offered me the choice of the steak dinner or the "A" and, in the
throes of my one-man competition for top Latin student, I gladly took
the "A." Mr. Shagam wrote down the grade and we went on with the rest
of the lessons for the day. Later in the week, however, he took me
aside for a moment and said, "I was surprised you took the 'A.'" In his
inimitable style, he did not tell me that he was disappointed that I
took the "A," but he managed to communicate to me that my appetite for
that grade was probably worthy of some introspection. And, indeed, he
had touched upon a guilty feeling that I had almost allowed myself not
to notice, until his comment. I went back to my room and thought long
and hard. I realized that the steak dinner was a celebration of the fun
of learning and of healthy competition, whereas taking the A was only
more of the same daily grind, which somehow, ever so slightly,
cheapened and restricted the joy of living and of learning. Mr. Shagam
and I never spoke about that revelation, but we did occasionally speak
of Hic Haec Hoc, at which he would smile and say, "yes, I remember that
you took that 'A.'" And, I think that we both knew that the meaning of
having done so was my lesson to learn.
Upon graduation, my competitor received a commendation in Latin, one of
many commendations for him, and I received a particular commendation, a
first and only commendation of any kind for me. By an administrative
oversight, however, my particular commendation never showed up in El
Archivero, and I am probably the only one who remembers that I received
it. So much for grade-grubbing.
On the surface, after all of that, I had learned a few things from
Marvin Shagam in Latin II. One was that hard work does indeed pay off
in mastery, and another was something about the transience of false
measures. While these were valuable lessons, to be sure, even I would
probably have learned them eventually anyway. But, there are two other
enduring things that I learned, and I do not think I would have learned
them any other way. The first was to decline Hic Haec Hoc in under 5
seconds, doubtless a skill of dubious value to the unenlightened. The
second, a notion perhaps also easily undervalued, was the transcendent
power of gentleness. Latin class was not for the faint of heart. If you
stumbled over a word, your grade for the day dropped a point. It was
firm, but it was fair, a reflection of Mr. Shagam himself. The tight
structure of Latin grammar, and that of the classroom procedure for
learning it, paradoxically made room for learning far more than Latin.
When Mr. Shagam told me he was surprised that I took the "A," he was
not criticizing me. He was gently inviting me to reflect, and he had
created a remarkable space to allow me to do so. The result was that
instead of feeling hurt or angry, I was left to wonder what surprised
him, and then to realize that I was already vaguely aware of it myself.
A good Latin student already recognizes that such an approach is at the
root of the verb, "to educate," but Mr. Shagam did not tell me any such
thing, he showed it to me. Using the demonstrative pronoun to show
someone an object in the outside world is easy enough for most of us,
but it is Marvin Shagam's magical gift and generous practice to be able
to use it to show someone something new about himself, from within.
It is with that lesson that I join in celebrating Marvin's 50 years at Thacher, with love, admiration, and gratitude.
—Oscar (Ok) Hills (Ok is pronounced "ock" and was my nickname at the time) CdeP 1973
No doubt you will be overrun with stories of: “the laughing test”, “Sunday morning LA Times,” “Marvin’s cap or scarf,” “Third String Soccer Cheers,” and the like. My story is perhaps a bit different, although certainly embodies the moral questions of honesty, what is most fair to the collective whole vs. the individual’s rights, and how Marvin allowed his students to reach these conclusions independently and yet within parameters of the code of the School.
Setting: Fall of 1973, I was prefect in the Upper School. Marvin was dorm head. School had just started and we had a new-to-the-school junior unpacking in his room. It was rumored he was in possession of a loaded handgun. News circled back to Marvin, who called me into his apartment to ask: “What could I do about this situation?” Over the next 24 hours it was decided that we must confront this young man, ask for the gun to be stored, and explain that this was not in the spirit of open-door policy, disclosures, safety to his fellow dorm mates, let alone against School rules. At first, he did not want to give up his gun, saw nothing wrong with keeping it in his room (“might need it for protection!”).
In the end we were successful in convincing him to surrender the handgun, understanding the school policy of honesty, open doors, and keeping peace in the Upper School.
Center to the story was not the fear of bodily harm, but rather, the cognitive solution, power of reason, and the ultimate positive resolve which I felt Marvin was orchestrating for all concerned. His calm, logical demeanor again prevailed.
Looking forward to the celebration. Hope this adds a bit to the fabric of the 50-year servant to the School.
—Bryan Beckham CdeP 1974
Marvin will forever stand out as one of the most memorable personalities I encountered in my years at Thacher (1970-74). He was a tremendous teacher and taught a fabulous class on famous philosophers that still stands out to this day. Outside of the classroom, he was a wonderful counselor who was always able to put seemingly important or traumatic events at Thacher in their proper world perspective.
Beyond this however, there was one anecdote that stands out. I think Marvin always understood that laughter is food for the soul. To wit: My strongest memory of Marvin was his famous “laughing test” that he offered to any freshman (“Smut”) who thought he was up to the challenge. Marvin would take you and several other freshmen into his apartment (then in pre-renovation Upper School) and make a bet with you. You and your colleagues would sit down on his couch and if he could make you smile or laugh within five minutes, you had to take him out for a steak dinner at the restaurant of his choice in Ojai (not a great selection at the time, I might add). If you could avoid a smile or laugh, he owed you the very same steak dinner. At the time, Marvin was (and perhaps still is) a profuse collector of African tribal paraphernalia. After seating you on his couch and making the bet, he would proceed to take down tribal masks and skirts from his walls and don them while dancing to an odd mix of tribal dance and opera music that he played on his “gramophone,” as he called it. While he danced, he would scream bizarre chants, seemingly putting spells on us all. In my session, the three of us broke out laughing within a minute so we were barely a challenge. A smile still comes across my face when I think about it and in my four years at Thacher, I never heard of a Toad who was up to the challenge.
Marvin, thanks for all that you have done for Thacher students over the last fifty years—you have made a tremendously positive difference in thousands of boys’ and girls’ lives!
—Michael E. Frank CdeP 1974
I am a graduate of the class of 1977. I was a prefect in Upper School and lived in Upper School for two of my four years at Thacher. Marvin was living in the Upper School annex at the time and, as a result, I had quite a bit of interaction with him. Whether it was in his philosophy classes or just sitting with him in his apartment cluttered with newspapers, magazines, and artifacts from around the world, I have nothing but fond memories of the man.
Two memories, in particular, I would like to pass along. The first is the Monday night gatherings in his apartment to watch Monty Python. Marvin has a tremendous sense of humor and he immediately discovered this new, off-the-wall show called Monty Python. A bunch of us would pile into his apartment every Monday night to take in this hilarious show with a biting political edge.
Second: No celebration of Marvin Shagam would be complete without a discussion of his famous “Laughing Test.” He was pretty secretive about what actually went on with this “Laughing Test” for fear that if kids caught wind of what went on during the “test,” they could brace themselves and thus, be more prepared to pass. What he would do was get anywhere from three-to-five kids to agree to take the Laughing Test that took place in his apartment. Each kid made a bet with Marvin. The bet was based on his proposition that he could make you laugh within five minutes. You had to stand there with your eyes open and if you could last five minutes without laughing (I’m laughing now just thinking about the absurdity of this), he would take you down to Ojai for a “steak dinner.” Given how bad the food was at Thacher at the time, this was a huge carrot; however, if you laughed, even ever so slightly, you had to join him in a “cultural event” of his choice. I know he modified the test each time he gave it, but my best recollection of my experience at the Laughing Test started with five of us lining up in a row in his apartment. He then disappeared momentarily back into his room and then came racing out screaming like a raging Zulu warrior carrying a spear, wearing some type of African medicine man mask, and what appeared to be a grass skirt. He came right up to me, an inch from my face, screaming some high-pitched Zulu warrior chant while dancing in a circle. Now you have to visualize this. Here we were, five of us, sophomores or juniors, standing in the apartment of this legendary, highly respected Thacher icon and he’s dressed up in this outrageous costume, dancing around and screaming like a madman. I lasted maybe, eight seconds before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Bob Mills may have held out for 30 seconds, but only on account of his generally foul disposition. My cultural event was a day at the Camarillo mental institution working with severely handicapped kids, which was an experience that had a powerful impact on me. I’m sure in today’s world, this type of thing would not be considered “politically correct” and you’d probably have people pulling kids out of school if they heard this going on. But Marvin Shagam knew how to connect with kids and this was just one other tool in his bag of tricks for connecting with kids. He didn’t just teach us academics; he taught us about life.
—Ed King CdeP 1977
I am in awe that someone can be as devoted and dedicated to one cause and one school as Marvin Shagam is to educating young minds and to The Thacher School. He is an inspiration and role model to young and old alike! I was thrilled to know Mr. Shagam as a Thacher student 30 years ago and am thrilled now as a parent to have had him teach our son and our daughter these last eight years. What an icon for all of us at Thacher!
Fifty years is an incredible and rare milestone. I congratulate Marvin and thank him for inspiring all who have crossed his path to be open thinkers and to be interested in the current affairs of our world. He has also inspired many of us to travel the world, if only a small percentage of the amount that he does! We love his postcards from far-flung places!
Congratulations Mr. Shagam!!
—Marganne Winter Oxley CdeP 1978
Congratulations Marvin! What a great milestone! It's hard for me to imagine how many students you have educated over the years in such a positive way. Your thoughtfulness in getting students to see all sides of issues has been invaluable to me, my children and everyone else at Thacher. I miss our early-morning breakfast conversations. Thanks for everything you've done for our family and for Thacher. Congratulations on 50 years!
—David B. Oxley CdeP 1979
I recall the rumor that Mr. Shagam was an interrogator during WWII. The thought drove fear into many of us being cornered by him. Strangely, his Laughing Contests seemed to be the place, where he'd cut loose with his best techniques to get under your skin. If you passed, he'd buy you a steak dinner at Carrows in town. Stranger still was that he never agreed to let me participate, probably because he assessed my mettle and knew I'd never crack and he'd have to resort to impermissible tactics to gain the upper hand.
—Russell H. Bennett CdeP 1979
What a spectacular reason to fête!! Out of all of my Thacher experiences, I have to say that Marvin Shagam has singularly figured most significantly. In fact, he clearly ranks up there in a single handful of my life's most-significant-and-influential figures.
It's too easy to acknowledge what an amazing teacher he was for me, not only in the classroom of course, but in life generally. He might be forgiven not remembering particularly, however, that my grade in his class was no reflection of that prowess (I think I scraped through with a C-, alas.)
Perhaps the largest kernel I have so often repeated to people as I share my penchant for international relations and political science broadly-speaking (as to distinguish from US politics, per se, thank you—although Obama has made it a lot more interesting!) would be his parting words to me (upon my pre-graduation exit to go to Montréal, Canada to learn French—a move that resulted in my fairly well calling it home since that time). He was smiling that coy smile that only Shagam-the-Cheshire-Cat can bear and told me (no doubt in "white lie" form) that he'd like me to know that history and political science are not the same thing; he was keenly aware at that time, certainly, of my lack of ability to achieve much higher than that C- !!). He also already knew me as well as I have come to know myself, only this quarter century later! Was he shaking his finger at me as he said that???!!
He was my advisor in my freshman year and also head of the Judiciary Council. The difficult position that I put him in for an indiscretion, which resulted in my two-week suspension, did nothing to put me at any distance from him; perhaps it drew me even closer! Nor did the lack of a suspension the following year for another freshman who committed my same "crime"—and even perhaps a bit worse—leave me feeling that he had presided over a double standard by the Judiciary Council and similarly chance my distancing from him.
In my sophomore year, not only did I have the good fortune to have him as a House Master, but I was right next door to him, coincidentally (or was it?) in the same room that my brother Trey (CdeP 1973) had occupied at Upper School five years earlier. I spent many an evening with him playing chess, hearing him carry-on about the many languages he could fumble through (including that nastiest Latin) with varying degrees of success; at least, I thought he was something of a master in them.
After I'd moved to Montréal, we would stay in letter-writing touch and we even had many a phone call, something I came to realize he held very dear, as did I. We even engaged in letter-mail correspondence chess-games. I have all the postcards he sent me over about a seven-year span on his travels and during lighter Thacher moments otherwise. When he asked me what he might bring back from China, as a unique gift, I blushed; I was taking Chinese in college at the time and asked if he might bring me a translating dictionary; he politely suggested I might think of something else, since it seemed to him that the Chinese people probably could use them more and I could probably find one over here if I tried hard enough. I went to the college bookstore and found a one-way Chinese-to-English dictionary that I have to this day; a very fat edition if I ever saw one.
A couple of years ago, I finally wrote responses to all his postcards in my files, using the mindset of events he shared against the dates, sharing with him things that I had always wanted to share with him. How often do we get a note or a call on our message machine that we don't return? I know there were many a letter I wrote to him through that time, but I don't have those to know what I already shared as we went along. So, I sent it to him, with both sides of each one of his postcards copied and diligently placed into a nice format and followed with my replies & feedback & commentary in context. Although I can't say for sure whether he actually got it, I think he probably did, but then just quietly stashed it on the shelf somewhere in that "tidy" home of his, smiling silent thanks and gratitude, something I've always felt for him.
When I came to the 20th-year Alumni Reunion, my future wife, Carol and I came to stay in the dorms for the weekend event, as did Peter Kamuyu, all the way from Kenya. Peter was actually in the room next to us and it was wonderful catching up with him after all these years and hearing about his life in-between: family, children, pineapple farming, life, politics, and such.
We had our bonfires at night there with some other classmates: Weems, Richardson, Oxley, Cunningham, Smallwood, Stevenson, Oxley, and many others I'm not remembering right now. There was something different about that get-together that was somehow quite different from how our get-togethers went back in high-school. Maybe something about the way we dragged the couches from the common room. Were we allowed campfires out there in those days? Or was I imagining we campfired, because it was so cozy? Perhaps it was the cold beers on ice in the barrel between the couches on that warm summer night?
Anyway, the missing star for the weekend was, of course, Shagam! (He's been known to be funny that way!) There were rumors he'd ditched showing his face through the weekend because he just doesn't do reunions well, or something like that. Maybe it pained him too much to go through so much melancholy and reminiscing for the sheer numbers of hearts and minds that have touched him, and have been touched by him. Would I be wrong in thinking that most anyone who'd gone through a Thacher experience came to see him as Thacher's most quintessential father figure, after all? Was it because I'd already been missing my late father for half my life already and Shagam became the perfect candidate for that role in my life so fully and completely? No matter. Carol and I stayed 'til mid-afternoon Sunday and as we were driving out the front gate, a very familiar old Volvo snuck casually by us and I peeled the car into reverse and shouted him down: “MARVIN!” He obliged the heckler, and I was perhaps the only class of '80 alum who’d seen him that weekend, and good it was!!
I think there is perhaps only one person on campus during any given era who actually knows Shagam's age; the payroll master. I imagine it's one of those closely-guarded job-description secrets, like what the combination is to the "football" that chases around the Commander-in-Chief, a high-state secret, divulgence of which is punishable by death by the cruelest and most unconstitutional means possible. But, since I've done penance as a payroll master and accountant otherwise, I'm going to risk certain death by venturing the math that—assuming he has devoted the majority of his post-university life to the Thacher community—with this, his 50th-year, plus another 17 for his pre-university life and allowing for the obligatory 7 years for good luck for and another 3 for Chinese luck in between, he might be lucky to be as young as 77, a very double-vision lucky number if I ever saw one! I often quip that I'm 99 with 3 centuries to go (be careful what you ask for), but at my brother Trey's 50th-surprise-birthday party 3 years ago, our other brother quipped that "50 is the new 35 and that when we all get together for Trey's 75th, it'll be like today's 50th," which would of course leave Shagam today at a sprite and exciting 52 years old (if I may take further mathematical "license")! (It seems he's gotten younger than Trey, at that!) In all of the time I've known him, I haven't been able to discern any sign of age ever hitting him. Does that leave him thinking—like an elderly neighbor of ours long ago once said to a similar comment in her direction—"ya thanks, that's because I've ALWAYS looked like an old man"? I quipped today to someone about the only thing that might make being 17 again a cool thing...and it wasn't about how much wisdom I had at that age, although that was the one thing that I would NOT go backward if I had to do without. And at that, I think all can agree with the witty, charming, astute, and piercing wisdom that ever and always defines Marvin Shagam.
Today, I realize that Marvin's Cheshire Cat smile was indeed for mischief, because political science—done properly—absolutely needs history under its belly in order to be properly plied as the art that it actually is.
From his taking me aside before that new freshman got off with probation and labor—where I suffered suspension and near-death-in-my-grades for my absence to explain to me that they'd come to a different decision with even more dire circumstances surrounding this latest student indiscretion—he didn't attempt to explain any of it; I was allowed to accept it for what it was, trusting his wisdom and even admiring his seeming higher level of compassion with someone in my similar situation... many lessons in the smallest gestures and acts. That, for me, is, has been, and always will be Marvin Shagam. It's got to be a tough bill to stand up and be that for so many people, but I think somewhere he's really been enjoying it. We should ALL be so lucky to touch and be so well touched, teach and be so well taught, smile and be so gracefully smiled upon!
Congratulations to an amazing golden anniversary in the Thacher Community. And may he grace it with another 50 more. More importantly, Thank You to Marvin Shagam for the amazing light that he has brought into my life, a passion to seek, wisen up, speak too many languages, indulge myself in ancient texts and travel amok as I can or will in between. An awesome example he sets, indeed.
I'm looking forward to attending the event in his honor on October 4. I'll be traveling from Montréal, without my wife. The only photos I seem to be able to find are the ones I've included in this email, taken during Spring break in 2005 when I actually caught him pointing his finger—a photo as rare as the man himself. I've also thrown in a TIF picture file holding thumbnails of all the postcard fronts I have in my possession, for what it's worth.)
—Chris Elkins CdeP 1980
I had the good fortune to have Mr. Shagam as my Latin teacher in 1978-79, during my Freshman year at Thacher. By now I have forgotten the bulk of the Latin he taught me (so patiently), but I have retained a valuable take-home message from his classroom. This message was gleaned from numerous class discussions about how Mr. Shagam had been a professional interrogator and that he could tell if you were fibbing about doing your Latin declensions. His confidence in his abilities was very strong, and I believed him completely. So the message I have harbored is this: Tell the truth, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because your facial expressions and shifting eyes will betray you anyway!
Besides this, I remember how ethically Mr. Shagam lived his own life, being mindful, kind, and gentle. I also remember him carrying around many newspapers, promoting good causes around the world, asking each of us to consider fasting for a day so that others less fortunate could eat.
I feel very fortunate to have been in his presence.
—Marian “Muffet” Huntington Schinske CdeP 1982
I, like many others have a trove of stories about Marvin. I'll relate
one that epitomizes the enduring civility and deep affection for people
that Marvin demonstrated on a daily basis, not as some sort of
pretense, but because it is as innate to him as breathing. I, along
with Galo Cabrales, signed up to volunteer at the Camarillo mental
hospital, which was one of the many
charitable actions Marvin undertook during my tenure at Thacher. While
it was a way to follow Shaggs by giving of ourselves to people who, for
various reasons, were "sequestered" at a mental institution, I really
saw it as a way to get off campus and see something new (I won't speak
The deatails aren't terribly important here, but we arrived, I was
paired with a young African American kid named Calvin, who had multiple
developmental disabilities, including three fingers on each hand, and
an inability to speak, although he could make sounds. So I hung out
with Calvin, read some books, walked around, and assembled a kite, and
then the volunteers had to get back on the bus to return to Thacher. I
brought Calvin back to his quarters and said goodbye, and Calvin held
up the kite looking at me. I told him we'd fly it next time, and he
turned and went inside.
Back at school, Marvin asked me how things had gone. I said "fine" and
he gave me that all knowing smile, and I went about my business until
next week rolled around. Marvin made his weekly Camarillo volunteer
announcement at assembly, and I brushed it off. Having procrastinated
on my work, I needed all the time I could find. Marvin approached me
and asked, with that same smile, as if he could see into my soul, if I
were coming the next day. What else could I say but "yes", and
immediately regretted it.
We arrive at Camarillo, and go into the lobby area, and wait for our
assignments. I'm told to go into the grassy area, as the person with
whom I'd be spending time was waiting for me. I go outside, and it's
Calvin! I had almost forgotten. He was sitting on a bench with the
kite. And - this is the part of the story where to this day, it is as
crystal clear and emotionally piercing as the minute it happened -
Calvin jumped from his seat, ran over to me, and he took my hand with
his three fingers and looked at me. I guess because he couldn't really
speak or communicate in a conventional way, he just looked at me and
stroked my hand like it was some precious little kitten, and just
stoked my hand for a minute, maybe he was thanking me, maybe just
showing some affection in the way he knew how to do so. And honestly, I
just lost it, because at that moment, I realized of all the things that
I had done up to that point, all the goals I had scored, x-country
races I'd won, A's in English, etc., helping this other human being,
being kind to this boy, was at once, as in the Banquet Song, the "best
I could do", it was "kindness and truth", and I realized at that
moment, to echo Keats, kindness is truth, truth kindness and that is
all you know on Earth and all you need to know. And that, my dear
friend MBK, is the notion Marvin Shagam instilled in me, in little and
big ways, nearly every day for four years of my life, and what I try
evoke, as imperfect as I am, every day, until the best I can do is all
Hours later, when we were getting on the bus, I looked for Marvin. I
wanted him to know how my day had been. I found him, and he smiled at
me, and I smiled back. No words were spoken. He already knew.
—Craig Golding CdeP 1983
Thoughts on Mr. Shagam
I lived next door to Mr. Shagam in the annex of Upper School during my freshman year in 1980, and I was then the Head Prefect of Upper School in my senior
year in 1984. Like Mr. Shagam, I subsequently went into teaching, and I'm now a history professor at Hamilton College in New York. Given that I spent a lot of time with
Mr. Shagam at Thacher, and given that I've been teaching for a mere eleven years now, I write this note with a keen sense of humility. Yes, anyone who has had the privilege of
studying with Mr. Shagam appreciates that he is a remarkable teacher and a remarkable man: humane, intellectual, politically-engaged, inspiring. But I wish to suggest that anyone who has gone into teaching might have additional insights into Mr. Shagam's admirable qualities. I wish to note two qualities that loom larger for me now than they ever did when I was a student at Thacher.
First of all, I can now appreciate Mr. Shagam's skill as a disciplinarian, which is an absolutely essential skill in education. Without discipline, your students literally can not hear their education; without discipline, students can not appreciate and respond to criticism. Generally speaking, the key to order in a classroom or on a campus is to establish high standards and clear consequences, and then to apply these standards and consequences with consistency-otherwise known as fairness. But Mr. Shagam's mastery as a disciplinarian goes far beyond such rules of thumb. Even now I find myself regularly applying one of his subtle rules on a regular basis with my own students (and let me acknowledge that Mr. Shagam himself would never characterize this as a rule, but rather, perhaps, as a sensible response). The rule is this: Put your emotional energy into reprimanding small, inconsequential mistakes, and then exercise calm and patience in addressing major mistakes that already entail great cost. The rationale is that a student can receive clear messages about discipline, duty, and boundaries when the stakes are not high. By contrast, when a student has made a mistake of real consequence, the student is virtually always aware of the cost and will learn more from constructive support than reprimands heaped upon punishment.
The second of Mr. Shagam's qualities that I can now appreciate is, simply, his endurance. Not his physical endurance, but rather the combination of his intellectual and emotional endurance in teaching successfully in an institution of high pedagogical standards for so long. Believe me, grading papers is an act of endurance. Marking quizzes and exams is an act of endurance. Showing up to teach and recreating and revitalizing material that you know by heart are acts of endurance. Too often movies, TV, and the press represent great teaching as an act of entertainment and charisma, or perhaps as a moment of extraordinary compassion. But if you actually teach for a living, you understand that one rare quality of great teaching is day-to-day, mundane consistency across time-consistency that provides the structure in which students can think, experiment, and flourish, and consistency that enables you to understand and reflect upon your own experience. You do not become a great teacher by being entertaining or charismatic; you become a great teacher by working hard on the details of teaching over a long period, by struggling to overcome or get around your own weaknesses, and, above all, by caring immensely about your subject and your students.
As a student at Thacher, I thought that Mr. Shagam's entertaining wit and mischiefs, and his charisma, were essential sources of his great teaching. Now I wonder how a great teacher such as Mr. Shagam could happen to be so witty and mischievous. I wonder how I, and we, could have been so fortunate in meeting a person so large in such a small school, in such a small place. The School and our lives are larger for Mr. Shagam's presence. Thank you, Mr. Shagam.
—Kevin Grant CdeP 1984
I was a Prefect in the Upper School, and so I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with Mr. Shagam, and to see first hand just how much he cared about the welfare of the students at the school. There is no doubt that we students appreciated and were grateful for Mr. Shagam’s obvious concern for us, but it was his irrepressible and somewhat bizarre sense of humor that made us love him.
As students, we were fascinated by any mysteries that could even remotely be attributed to members of the faculty, and needless to say, many such mysteries adhered to Mr. Shagam. Perhaps my favorite, because it was at once so banal and yet so impenetrable, was the matter of what the “H” in “Marvin H. Shagam” stood for.
Several of my classmates and I pestered him over the course of our time at Thacher to reveal the answer to this question, but Mr. Shagam only gave us a series of incomprehensible responses (which I suspect would have been very amusing if we had done a better job of studying our Latin). We even went so far as to unearth some old yearbooks from when Mr. Shagam was a student, but were unable to shed any light on the issue.
Finally, in response to my pleas, Mr. Shagam promised to reveal the secret on my last day at Thacher. One of the rumors about Mr. Shagam’s middle name was that the “H” stood for “Huckleberry,” and when my final day came, Mr. Shagam informed me that this was, in fact, his middle name, but that it was pronounced HOO-kel-bear-EEEEE.
This was clearly preposterous, but Mr. Shagam imparted this information with such earnest solemnity that I suppressed my laugh. And then he fixed me with an unblinking look of grave import, which he maintained so far beyond the point of social comfort that I began to waver in my conviction that he was teasing me. To this day, I am still not entirely sure that his “secret” was in jest, and even as I write this, I have the tiniest concern that I am betraying his confidence by revealing the contents of our conversation.
There is no question that Mr. Shagam is unique, and it is equally certain that Thacher and the many students who have passed through it are uniquely fortunate to have been instructed by him. I count myself among the many, many people who owe Mr. Shagam a debt of gratitude for his generous, unwavering, and complete support, as well as his wisdom, humor, and great love of teaching. Thank you, Mr. Shagam.
—Stacey Lee (formerly Anderson) CdeP 1985
I am very sorry that I won't be able to attend Marvin's celebration of his 50 years at Thacher.
Marvin has had a big impact on many young students’ lives as he did mine. I was a freshman prefect for him in Lower School in 1986-87. I tried to take as many classes from him as possible including Latin, Economics, and Political Science. I loved his classes because they weren't your usual classes. He gave people a thirst for learning and always made classes interesting. Marvin was a voice of reason around campus and always held a special place in everyone's heart that knew him well. How can you not love a teacher who reads war poetry to the freshman soccer team to get them fired up before games! I wish him the best and know that there will be plenty of others to celebrate with him on that night.
Good luck Mpenda (his license plate) and I hope you have a great evening!
—David Bressie CdeP 1987
Marvin Shagam is not of this earth. That was my first impression of
him, and it's stuck ever since. Angel, devil, shaman, warlock,
extraterrestrial, champion, teacher, mentor, friend -- Marvin is all of
these, and then some. When Marvin is mad at you, hell hath no fury. But
when you're in his good graces, life sure is sweet. I learned more from
this wonderful, quirky, and
brilliant man between the ages of 14 and 18 than I have from any single
person since. He is proof positive that being human can be a beautiful
—Kenyon Phillips CdeP 1994
I heard about the upcoming tribute to Mr. Shagam, acknowledging his 50 years of service to the Thacher Community. I cannot imagine a more deserving recipient of recognition.
Since I graduated, I have kept in close touch with Mr. Shagam via postcards from our various travels. I always admired his pursuit of new adventures and his ability to delve deeply into the pressing issues of the places he visited. This past May, I was fortunate enough see these traits in action—and to write a couple postcards ourselves—as Mr. Shagam and I traveled to Cuba. Our trip proved that his curiosity and energy has not waned since the first day I met him.
—Tyler Johnson CdeP 1998
My class was the first after many years not to have Mr. Shagam as the freshman boys’ dorm head in Lower School. Instead, Mr. Shagam was my advisor when I was a junior living in Lee Quong (junior and senior boys were living in the recently renovated Middle School). I remember a particular advisee dinner to which Mr. Shagam drove us in his own car (for some reason not all of us were available to go, so we all fit). He drove an old Volvo station wagon and somebody asked how old the car was. I don’t remember the answer, but I do remember Mr. Shagam saying that he didn’t know how many miles were on the car because the odometer had flipped over and re-started from zero (maybe more than once). A lot of people drive old cars, and many cars have odometers that stop working, but Mr. Shagam’s car was the only one I’ve ever been in that had an odometer that had gone past its limit and started over. To this day, I still don’t know how old Mr. Shagam is, but even though he may have stopped coaching boys’ soccer when he could no longer out-sprint the team, I don’t think he ever slowed down. Many people take vacations, or slow down at various times in their lives, but Mr. Shagam is like that odometer; he seems to have gone past ordinary limits and started over. While I was at Thacher he was always willing to take extra time to answer students’ questions, and always eager to talk about movies or current events. When he wasn’t busy with students, he always seemed to be sending postcards from exotic places, counseling prisoners, or doing other good works. Mr. Shagam is surely one of a kind, but he’s given the rest of us something to which we can aspire...to start each day, or each year, or each new task with half as much energy, passion, and caring as he does.
—Matthew Schuman CdeP 2000
First of all Mr. Shagam is the man. He is one of my mentors and was very influential on me during my time at Thacher. I remember how entertaining Mr. Shagam made Latin class through his balance of humor and didactic teaching. I learned Latin from taking his courses, but I also learned much more about domestic and international politics, and morals and ethics.
My favorite memories with Mr. Shagam were when he took Wes, Tyler, Matty, and me surfing. The first time Mr. Shagam volunteered to drive us to the beach was after we made an announcement during our amphitheater school-wide meeting that we would buy any faculty member a $0.39 McDonald's cheeseburger in exchange for a ride to the beach. Mr. Shagam was willing to take us up on the offer—he is a good sport. The best surf we ever scored though was in Mexico when Mr. Shagam took us camping at San Miguel. Mr. Shagam is predictable and his attire is no exception. In the hot sun at the beach in Mexico Mr. Shagam still wore his coat, scarf, hat, and bifocals while lounging in a beach chair and reading the New York Times. Mr. Shagam is awesome.
—Gavin McClintock CdeP 2001
3. Remembrances and Appreciations from Other Friends
A few words to acknowledge your tenure and tenacity in reaching your 50th year in the Ojai: Our time together, 1959-67, embraced the old and the new, the changing of the guard and, in some ways, of the School. I fondly remember those years and many of their people. It's a pleasure knowing you are there to hold the past and grow with its passage, bridging what was with what is. I wish you well and congratulate you, Marvin.
—Dick Burhoe, Former Faculty
All I would add is that I hope the remarks include reference to the daily breakfast scene, with Marvin eating healthily, dispensing copies of the NYT to all, and overseeing exchanges on every political and economic topic under the sun. What a way for all of us to start the day!
Looking forward to the event.....
—David Johnston, Former Faculty
Eating of violin strings and gifts of steak
dinners combined with counsel, direction,
and discipline of thousands of boys and
hundreds of girls—plus guidance of many
dorm teachers—speak to the wide
effectiveness of this extra-ordinary man,
—David Koth, Former Faculty
In the Spring of 1975 Mr. Shagam came to Emma Willard School in Troy, NY, with the Thacher boys. Even as a freshman at Emma Willard I was somehow aware of his reputation as a terrific teacher. When given the opportunity to take his legendary "Current Events" class I felt very fortunate. The end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon dominated current events in the spring of 1975. Marvin Shagam taught what I consider to be the first history of Vietnam class within the context of that current events class. Only a true master teacher could place those important current events within a historical context and do it in real time every day. More than thirty years later, married to a high school history teacher I still marvel at Marvin Shagam's achievement in that "Current Events" class at Emma Willard in the Spring of 1975. Unfortunately that was my only chance to have Mr. Shagam as a teacher. When I got to Thacher as an exchange student in the Spring of 1977 Mr. Shagam was on sabbatical.
—Catherine "Katie" Keggi Hunter EWS 1978
Before knowing Marvin as a colleague and a friend, we knew him as an advisor to our son during his junior year (1999-2000.) Marvin was a perfect match for David’s interest in domestic and international politics and debate. We were so pleased, three time zones away, to know that Marvin was available to listen, to probe, and to challenge in a way that allowed David to develop his intellectual muscles. Later, during my eight years at Thacher, Marvin was a colleague who would readily talk politics and also be a co-conspirator with me on ways to get from Point A to Point B on United Airlines for the lowest cost, with the best seats, and earning the most miles.
Marvin’s wisdom and thoughtfulness lives around the globe. I had the privilege of spending time with so many alumni and parents (current and past) whose lives were touched by Mr. Shagam. I recall meeting a couple whose two sons graduated from Thacher. During our conversation, the husband spontaneously said to me, “David, when we are sitting around the kitchen table as family, trying to decide what is right about some issue, we always ask, ‘What would Mr. Shagam say about this?’, and the answer becomes clear to us all.” Another time, I asked an attorney who specializes in immigration law why he chose that particular field. He replied, “Mr. Shagam taught me to care about the underdog.”
As the conclusion of a vacation, Marvin would return to Thacher from Thailand, or Cuba, or South America, or Europe, and I would know that we would soon be receiving a post card written from the road and sent through a slow mail system. We were always touched that he would take the time to write and share his observations of local culture.
Congratulations Marvin on your years of service!
—David and Nancy Babbott, parents of David CdeP 2001, John CdeP 2003, and Ben CdeP 2005
I just wrote a letter to Mr. Shagam...Elizabeth (who won the Latin language award all three years she studied Latin at Thacher) went on the study Art History and Italian at Columbia College. Thereafter she worked for six months at the Patron's office of the Vatican Museum where there was an abundance of Latin surrounding her. Latin is still the official language of the Vatican.
Now she aspires to go into medicine where there will be yet more Latin terminology. Marvin Shagam encouraged her and had her teach classes to younger students. Through his guidance she felt that she was good with languages and now speaks Italian and Spanish. Actually we spoke Spanish at home when she was young as that was her father's native language.
How a teacher who did not particularly like sports took this very athletic girl and appreciated her intellect was amazing. This is why I did not send her to public school as I did not want her to be just an athlete. Rather, she had an intellectual strength, too. Mr. Shagam encouraged and strengthened that intellectual curiously which continued to grow through college and beyond. For these reasons, I shall always be indebted to him.
Oh, and two of us mothers became very good friends through Mr. Shagam's Latin classes. The classes were so small (and became smaller each year)…Julie Dickson (Rob's mother) and I would see each other at Latin class and chat afterwards and are now good friends! I visit her several times a year. Who would have thought that Mr. Shagam's Latin class brought together two mothers in friendship!
—Virginia Sanseau, parent of Elizabeth CdeP 2001
I am eternally grateful that my Son, Stephen Helms Bell, had the opportunity to be one of your many students, who benefited from your amazing wisdom. That wisdom has guided my son in his path of life. You are an amazing man who has spent your life guiding students. You have lived a selfless life.
As a parent and lifetime Trustee of the School I am deeply grateful for your years of service.
I thank you for Stephen and me, his Mother.
—Betty Helms Adams, Parent of Stephen Bell CdeP 1964
I think of Marvin as the conscience and heart of the School. In some ways, Marvin was like Socrates, a gadfly, who promoted a just society at Thacher. During my years on the Thacher faculty, I came to appreciate Marvin's advocacy for each and every individual, his incredible capacity to see "the good" in others and to seek "the truth." He encouraged those he worked with, faculty and students, to find their voices, to speak forthrightly and carefully, and to respect the right of others to express themselves. Grammatical errors made in Assembly talks were expensive! Through the United Cultures at Thacher, he promoted understanding and acceptance of difference, and in his popular Political Philosophy classes, he fostered interest in world affairs, encouraged students to be informed, to think deeply and to express their opinions carefully.
Marvin's heart is big, and he is selfless and kind. I always admired his visiting prison inmates on vacations, reaching out to those in need, to the disenfranchised or to the student who was in trouble. The School was his family, yet his embrace extended far beyond. He helped students understand the value of personal integrity and "doing the right thing" for themselves, but also for others near and far. I treasure Marvin's friendship; he is the best kind of friend one could have... a person who helps others be the best they can be.
Sam joins me in sending all good wishes for the years ahead.
—Marcia Edwards, Faculty Emerita (1980 - 2001)