On Sunday, October 9, a memorial service was held on Thacher's Upper School Lawn to celebrate the extraordinary life of Marvin H. Shagam. More than 600 traveled to campus from far and wide to pay tribute to this devoted and beloved
Marvin Shagam, beloved friend, teacher, mentor, coach, and counselor at The Thacher School since 1958, passed away peacefully in Ojai, California on August 9, 2016. He was 92.
Born in Monongalia County, West Virginia, on April 2, 1924, Shagam was the only child of Louis and Clara (Silverstein) Shagam. Early on, they modeled a regard for issues of justice and equality: Their objections to segregation meant that Shagam attended high school in nearby Donora, Pennsylvania, rather than the local school. During his time there, he served as class president and graduated first in his class in 1942.
After high school, despite the misgivings of his father, Shagam applied for and received an American Legion college scholarship to attend Washington and Jefferson College, a small liberal arts school in Washington, Pennsylvania. After completing his first year there, Shagam, once more against his father’s wishes, enlisted in the military: “There was no thought of our waiting to be drafted. Everyone that I knew supported the war.”
Shagam joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of first lieutenant, serving as an intelligence officer. After providing him with specialized language training in Hindustani at the University of Pennsylvania, the Army sent him to Burma (present-day Myanmar), where his new language skills turned out to be of little use as he examined Japanese prisoners of war.
After the war, Shagam returned stateside and resumed his studies at Washington and Jefferson, graduating in 1947 magna cum laude with a political science major. After college, he enrolled at Harvard Law School for a year before accepting a fellowship to study political philosophy at Oxford, his sights already set on becoming a teacher. There, Shagam spent three years, as he put it, “just educating.” He did not take a degree but managed to get himself elected president of the student body.
After those three years at Oxford, he took a teaching position at Mount House School in Tavistock, Devon, England, where he taught middle school under an inspiring headmaster. Two years later, his father’s ill health drew him back to the States where he first found a position teaching middle schoolers at the Williston School in Easthampton, Massachusetts, and later high schoolers at the Westtown School, a Quaker institution in West Chester, Pennsylvania. At the latter he coached lower school soccer, sponsored the debate and model railroad clubs, and pursued his interest in hiking and camping.
Eventually Shagam’s sights turned west, having developed a fondness for California during his years in the military. After picking Thacher more or less at random, he sent a letter of introduction to then-Headmaster Newton Chase, who, as fate would have it, had learned only the day before that one of his teachers had been drafted into the Korean War. In accepting the offer to start in the fall of 1958, Shagam warned: “I have a rather large book and record collection” and “I should also like to bring a phonograph.”
The Thacher Years
Shagam’s 55-plus years at The Thacher School represent by far the longest service of any faculty member in the School’s history. During his robust tenure he served in myriad roles, including teacher, coach, mentor, and dorm head, and made a deep and lasting impact on generations of students and countless colleagues and Thacher parents.
In the classroom, Shagam brought a truly exceptional depth and breadth of knowledge to the subjects of Latin, history, political philosophy, economics, and Holocaust studies. On the field it was not unusual to find him leading his boys’ JV soccer team to victory by reading them the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. And within the community he was a dedicated custodian and even occasional author of Thacher lore, regaling his students with the legends of the ghosts of Upper School and Piedra Blanca. More importantly, he was a powerful listener who invested each conversation with a sense of significance and deep caring. This same attentiveness to those around him also earned him the unofficial position of Thacher’s most informed political junkie and, in many ways, the School’s moral center. He was known for taking stands against mindless conformism and advocating passionately for informed, civil dissent when necessary. He showed early interest and ability in public speaking and civic engagement and continued in this bent by advocating persuasively for an increased emphasis on public speaking instruction at Thacher. As part of that effort, he helped found and subsequently advised the Sir Winston Churchill Debate Society, which continues to this day.
More than anything, Shagam was a one-of-a-kind educator who devoted his life to others. While at Thacher, he often turned his attention to the struggles of those outside the community and encouraged his students to do the same. During his spring break in 1965 he drove five Thacher students to Mississippi to observe firsthand the civil rights protests taking place there. Another time, he drove a group of students to a small town in Mexico, where they installed a windmill to help supply the community with water.
His two sabbaticals from Thacher similarly reveal much about his character and commitments. The first, beginning in 1965, was a stint teaching in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and later in Kabwe, Zambia, where Shagam worked with ex-guerilla fighters from the many anti-colonial movements active in Africa at that time, helping to prepare them for Cambridge University entrance exams. The letter of recommendation Anson S. Thacher wrote in support of Shagam’s application to this post said, “He is far from a typical American, but all I can say is that if more Americans were like him, I think we would be a much better country.” Shagam found the work so fulfilling and important that he extended his sabbatical to two years and pushed for another before Thacher begged him to return and help guide the School through its own turbulence. Though he had been considering remaining in Africa permanently, where he felt he was doing very important work, the School needed him and he returned to Ojai, where one head of school after another depended on him to help navigate the uncharted waters of that era, when the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the roiling counterculture created rifts between students and faculty that Shagam was often able to bridge. When he returned to Ojai from his travels, he brought with him his mother, to whom he was a devoted and supportive son.
His second sabbatical during the 1976-77 school year led Shagam to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, where he visited many remote islands and isolated communities in what was ultimately an unsuccessful search for a society free from violence.
In 1977, his innumerable contributions were recognized when he was awarded the esteemed Forest H. Cooke Teaching Chair. In 1992, acknowledging the profound and irrevocable impact of Shagam on the School, Thacher initiated The Marvin H. Shagam Award in his honor. The recognition is now given each year to a student “who has made a difference in the community in which he or she lives through force of character, goodness, courage, vision, and love for all of God’s creation.”
Despite these honors, Shagam generally avoided the spotlight, but would not shy away from attention if it furthered a cause that mattered to him. Ever wary of a teacher’s influence, he was cautious about revealing his personal convictions to his students, preferring to draw them to their own conclusions with patient and earnest Socratic dialog. With his colleagues, however, he was willing to take moral stands on causes he found important, such as the Honor Code and the value of teaching public speaking.
Shagam’s colleagues—with whom he also forged many lasting friendships—experienced the same genuine interest that he took in each of his students. A relentless traveler, Shagam was a prolific sender of postcards from remote and exotic destinations, and he was generous with his seemingly inexhaustible trove of airline miles, which he regularly used to sponsor entire academic departments on international trips. He regularly astounded colleagues with the depth and breadth of his learning, and his ability to recall detail. His area of special interest was current affairs and his Dining Hall table was a daily roundtable of discussion and a forum for his keen political observations. His house, from which the strains of his beloved Mozart could be heard most mornings, was a repository of souvenirs from his travels and gifts from students and friends.
Drawing on his passion for and experience in public speaking, he helped many students, faculty members, and administrators prepare for public events over the years, helping select invocations and benedictions, working on pronunciation, and guiding the community as unofficial School arbiter of decorum and public speaking, always encouraging the inclusion of as many languages as possible.
In the fall of 2008, more than 600 of his friends, colleagues, and former students gathered at Thacher to honor Shagam for a half-century of service to the School. Under the big tent, erected on the field upon which he had coached and surrounded by the track where he had run with his teams, generations of Thacher community members celebrated his impact.
In the last few years, Shagam had retired from the classroom, but continued to play an active role in the community, making regular Assembly announcements, visiting classes, helping out with the Debate Society, and serving in his longstanding role as senior class advisor. He continued to preside over daily “Breakfast Club” with colleagues at his corner table in the Dining Hall. And as recently as May of this year, he reprised a comic duet he’d sung in French with Katherine Halsey in previous years.
More recently, as declining health forced him to reduce his teaching load, Shagam was very grateful for the care he received from several colleagues on campus, as well as various local medical and home-care professionals. Explicit and effusive in his gratitude, he reliably charmed every doctor and nurse he met during his final years, in particular, those from Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice and, eventually, at the Continuing Care Center at the Ojai Valley Community Hospital.
Shagam considered the School his family and it was his plan to leave his entire estate to that family, one which had loved and cared for him until the end. His survivors include his students and colleagues, along with the many at-risk teens and incarcerated adults to whom he offered wise counsel and financial assistance over the years.
It was also Shagam’s wish that his estate help fund a new program that Thacher was in the process of developing at the time of his death: The Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics and Global Citizenship. Gifts in his memory can be directed to that program.