I met Mr. Shagam thirty years ago when I arrived in Ojai as a Freshman resident of the Lower School. He was our Dorm Head and I certainly didn’t know then how significant a figure he would eventually become in my life.
My classmate Peter Bray recently recalled our collective arrival that fall “to a dusty little cowboy dorm, next to the horses and the flies, and having the most non-cowboy man overseeing the dorm.” With his necktie, his hat, the sunglasses and the heavy sweaters regardless of the weather. Mr. Shagam was unlike any adult I’d met: in fact, he was intimidating to my 14-year-old mind. There was also a degree of mystery. Questions circulated around our class. How old was he? Did this credible man actually believe a ghost dwelled in the Upper School? Was he really a WWII interrogator? For what did the middle initial H stand? And just how long was that hair? He wouldn’t say exactly, and I wasn’t sure what was safe to ask.
One day I was leaving the Lower School, and turned back to hurl a high-volume jibe at a classmate across the courtyard, which unwisely included a dose of profanity. This wafted up and over the stone staircase to the concrete landing outside Mr. Shagam’s apartment where he was, of course, seated. Uh oh. I heard a spine-chilling: “Andy! Noooooo!” You did not want to disappoint Mr. Shagam.
Recognizing this, three friends once tried to pre-negotiate ”sneaking-out” after check-in to join the rest of class in some shenanigans. As Jordan Gudebski recalled they “waited with bated breath as Peter Bray entered Mr. Shagam’s apartment and put forth the argument in favor of us leaving the dorm after check-in. Well, there started a growling, and then a rumbling, and then the roof and windows of Marvin's apartment started to tremble and nearly blew open as Mr. Shagam countered the argument. Peter staggered out of that apartment white as a sheet and we did NOT join our peers that evening after check-in.”
Yes, he could be intimidating. But he was also someone with whom you always wanted to connect. As Jordan reflected, he was “eminently approachable and absolutely insurmountable.”
No doubt, Mr. Shagam had high standards. He was particularly fearsome and rigorous about small transgressions because -- though they seemed to lack moral dimension -- they were, in fact, essential to character, order and community trust. He knew that the small integrities add up. They matter. This value, which Mr. Shagam planted so clearly, still guides me every day.
When the same Peter Bray found himself in serious hot water with the Judicial Council, Mr. Shagam was the person he asked to speak as his advocate. That was Marvin Shagam: on matters of significance, when real trouble hit, no matter how grave your error, he would welcome you with wise counsel, support, and open arms.
Mr. Shagam was also legendary for coaching the freshman boys fourth-team soccer squad. As my classmate Erik Bauer recalled: “Best team I was ever on. We, like many freshman soccer teams before us, were undefeated. He left it to us to organize our practices and play. He’d have someone pick a war poem at random from some weathered tome at the beginning of the game and at halftime. The ritual of his dramatic delivery would rile us up into a frenzy.”
That an athletic contest became a cause to read ancient classics certainly reflected Mr. Shagam’s greater passion for scholarship than soccer, but it also represented his humor, intentional eccentricity, enthusiasm and ability to find meaning in almost any situation.
He often invited our class to his home to watch political debates and discuss the issues of the day. My classmate David Van Slyke recalled how Mr. Shagam asked us to ponder “what are my responsibilities to grow as a citizen? How do the responsibilities of citizenship reach beyond being [just] a caring person?” For many this was our first exposure to the obligations of citizenship.
While these discussions unspooled, he had at least three VCR’s whirring away recording movies and TV shows, despite the impossibility of ever seeing or sharing all the material he collected. He had a voracious appetite for learning and a desire to share that journey with all around him, unconstrained by any precise curriculum.
During Sophomore year we decided to raise money for charity by renting a dunking tank. Students would pay for the privilege of throwing a ball to dunk our teachers. Not very complicated, and brilliant fundraising, right? Mr. Shagam heard about it and tracked me down. He passionately argued this was disrespectful to the faculty. Yes, it was for a good cause, but it was the wrong thing to do. In this, and so many ways, Mr. Shagam taught us that good ends do not justify compromised means.
His high moral standards began to transform my own. He expected much from his students and challenged us to reach higher and be better versions of ourselves.
After graduating from Thacher, I stayed in touch with Mr. Shagam. When times were tough I would call him, share my challenges, and receive advice.
He invited me to return each opening day of school for many years to share with the new assembled freshman boys the sadness I battled during my first few days away from home and how things got better. In hindsight, this invitation was as much for my benefit as it was for the students, giving me a mechanism to stay connected to a school I wasn’t quite ready to leave completely.
I once invited him during college to attend a theatrical production I created. I was impressed when he appeared on opening night to support me, despite needing to fly to be there.
Eventually, I came to know him not as Mr. Shagam but as Marvin.
When we greeted one another over the years Marvin would always say “you look so well’ or “you look so tired” and it was clear he was interested in me, not what I had accomplished in my career since the last conversation, but who I was as a person and how I was doing in my life journey.
Among faculty colleagues, Marvin used his frequent flyer miles to pay for many trips, taking entire departments to the far reaches of the world to open new horizons. However, as a frequent traveler myself, I tried to do the math on his miles and concluded he must have been buying many of those tickets with cash from his own pocket.
Of course, Marvin was a mentor and friend to many outside the Thacher community. Whether corresponding with prisoners in West Virginia, or serving as a volunteer with Interface Family Services in Ventura, he showed up generously to make the world better.
With time, the initially imposing, intimidating, formal and mysterious figure of Mr. Shagam had become Marvin the most significant teacher and mentor in my life…even though I never actually took a formal class with him. In so many critical ways he shaped the person I am today.
For all that is wonderful about Thacher -- and there is so much and so many here I love and have learned from -- Marvin was the soul of the school for me, the person to whom I felt most deeply rooted and to whom I attributed the weight of my educational experience. I know my relationship with Marvin was hardly unique. Many gathered here today were inspired by him in similar ways.
Marvin arrived in our lives at a crossroads, that catalytic moment in which we came to know ourselves as adults. He stood watch at this critical turning point for hundreds of us, as a mentor and life changer. And his moral compass traveled onward with each of us.
Today, we are here to remember Marvin together as a school and alumni community, but let’s also recognize that Thacher was never a job for Marvin. He committed himself to this place without reservation. It was his home. It was his purpose. It was his family.
Indeed, we are his family.
And his legacy lives on in each of us.
Marvin, dear friend, you have done the best work in the world that you could, and that work is now done.
We will forever love and miss you.