The idea of putting into words just how much of an impact Marvin Shagam had on our lives is by far one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever faced. I thought the best way to do this is by describing my relationship with him and the lessons I learned – and hope that by painting this picture I can help others remember and reflect on their own experiences.
I met Marvin the weekend I moved in to Thacher in freshman year. My parents and I had lunch in the dining hall and when I took our plates toward the kitchen afterward, I ran into him. What initially struck me was that although it was nearly 95 degrees out that day, this gentleman was dressed as though a blizzard warning had just been issued. I thought immediately that as it was move-in week, he must have been the grandfather of one of my classmates. He gave me a warm smile, greeted me with a hello, and continued on his way.
I realized that Marvin was in fact a faculty member (and realized he was the legendary “Mr. Shagam” that I had already heard so much about) when I was assigned to his table during my second rotation of formal dinner. He told us about the various electives he taught – that term, it was his class on the Holocaust. Although it seemed his electives were meant for upperclassmen, he welcomed me to sit in in his class and as it fit into my schedule and I had asked, Marvin was happy to have me join for the entire trimester, for the majority of which I found myself with a middle seat on the sunken couch in his living room, a five-foot tall freshman wedged between two six-foot tall, very intimidating senior boys. That was the beginning – I took a Shagam class each term thereafter and he asked me to TA his classes the following year. The rest was history.
It was common knowledge that regardless of the intended subject of any of Marvin’s classes, each would end up more or less becoming a class on Current Events and on anything else that he found important to include. This allowed us all to share common lessons, experiences and stories. Nearly everyone had spent classes watching comically aggressive sessions of UK Prime Minister’s Questions on C-Span, and thought-provoking movies (or “films” as Marvin always called them), such as School Ties, Amadeus, Sophie Scholl, Au Revoir Les Enfants, My Dinner with André.
Marvin taught us that although we had the privilege of living in this beautiful, surreal bubble that is the Thacher School, we could never forget that there was a world outside that needed our care and attention. He encouraged us all to pursue politics as a career, as he steadfastly believed that this field needed more good people. Ironically, however, I can trace back my passion for investing and the financial markets to the day that Marvin passed out copies of Warren Buffett’s “Essays to [his] Shareholders” in his economics class.
Sometimes, if a good discussion began at the start of class, we would never end up reaching the actual agenda for the day. Marvin never felt the need to stop a good discussion or debate once it started – these were the days when we learned the most.
You did not have to be a student of Marvin’s to acknowledge that there was a cloud of mystery that surrounded him. Although he was known and beloved by decades of students, very few, if any, knew much about his background, not even the elusive answer to the question – what does the “H” in Marvin H. Shagam stand for?? There were always silly rumors that swirled around amongst the students and imaginations ran wild. People wondered if he worked for the CIA or if he was a spy for the US during the Cold War. And the silliest one by far, students wondering if he perhaps had a secret family in Thailand!
When Marvin did travel, he would exercise his singular, pun-loving sense of humor by sending his students comical post cards. In preparation for today, I actually found one that he wrote me the summer after my freshman year, and I thought it would be an absolute shame if I didn’t read it for everyone to hear:
I am visiting a near relative who is a visiting professor of Anthropology, specializing in the Azeri people (2nd from the left). A fierce opponent of Darwinian evolution, he was the darling of the religious right in San Simeon, CA. His son, nearest to his left, had taken holy orders and proudly displayed his special monk-key. Despite his monk-ish experience, he actually turned out to be a real swinger, and left the monastery, infuriating his parents, who went APE!!! They had hopes that one day he might become the Roman Catholic Primate of Southeast Asia. But father and family are returning to San Simeon. “Do you know what they pay me here? Peanuts – just peanuts!” I’ll miss his wife’s banana cream pie.
After I graduated from Thacher, Marvin continued to be a source of wisdom and advice for me – he filled the role of grandfather in my life. I called him to check in regularly, and kept him up to date on everything that was important in my life while I was in college. He gave me advice on figuring out the first steps of my career path, he even consoled me through my first major breakup, and was one of the first phone calls I made several months ago when I got engaged to my best friend from Penn.
Marvin shared in the most important moments and decisions I made and shaped the person I am. He was forever present in the lives of his students. He challenged us by asking us what WE thought about the state of the world and by presenting us with the most provocative ideas and perspectives to consider. He loved learning from us as much as we loved learning from him. He taught us complex lessons as well as the simplest ones – sometimes the latter stay with you the most, like the importance of a good breakfast, how to give a speech, or how to properly answer the question “How are you?” (if you answered, I’m good instead of well, he would wince visibly and offer a gentle but stern grammar lesson).It’s unthinkable to imagine that he is no longer with us physically, but Marvin will be an omnipresent figure for this school always. I am indescribably thankful to have been one of the lucky ones to get to know this legendary man. Thank you, Marvin Shagam, for everything you did for this school and its students. You will be dearly missed and always fondly remembered.