Sam Seigle, Sarah Lawrence College’s longest-serving faculty member, is sitting on the other side of the Sarah Lawrence pub table from me. He is wearing a grey sweater with red stains on it and Latin writing that reads, Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes (“If you can read this you have too much erudition”). His thin white hair is long and scruffy both on his chin and on his head. He reminds me of an ancient Greek philosopher. His eyes are fixed on the paper cup filled with tea in front of him. Beside it lies a bunch of sugar packets.
One after the other Sam tears them up and empties their contents into the brew. “I like my tea sweet,” he says. He deems that enough of an explanation, and I don’t ask further. I jot down Sam’s words as he talks. He doesn’t want me to record him. “Once it is said, it can’t be undone,” he explains. I offer to transcribe his words and delete all the recordings when I’m done. He shakes his head. Sam Seigle and technology don’t go well together.
Some people say that the Siegel Center, the official name of the pub, was given in his honor. The rumor is that Ruth Siegel is his deceased wife. When I ask Sam about Ruth Siegel, he laughs off the question with a deep chuckle. Sam has never married, although he got close once. “But she scared me off, she was too insistent that we get married.”
Sam turned 80 years old on November 7, but it really doesn’t show. He was born in 1932, outside of Pittsburgh. The Great Depression meant he learned the value of money very quickly. Sam didn’t get an allowance. He started shoveling snow as a teenager at 50 cents a driveway. “You could probably get $50 now.” His mother gave him money to buy the shovel but he had to shovel ten driveways in order to pay her back.
Sam’s parents decided early on that he had to become a lawyer or a doctor. But Sam loved books and history. One of his most vivid childhood memories was on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Sam’s family was eating lunch at a restaurant when the news got out. But nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was, except for nine-year-old Sam who had read about it in his books. Families crowded around the table to be informed, much to the distress of Sam’s parents. “I followed the war the whole time. I knew all of Europe,” Sam tells me. He had memorized all the maps that were published in newspapers.
“It’s almost like a new dark age. The amount of knowledge you young people no longer have is astounding.”
In 1952 Sam received a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. His parents would only help him financially if he went to Law or Medical school, but his passion was with Latin and Greek history. He tutored others, swam and played chess. “But I got kicked off the chess team for shouting ‘I won!’ out loud whenever I won,” he tells me.
In May 1964, Sam Seigle was hired by Sarah Lawrence College and has been here ever since. “I had heard the name, Harold Taylor had made the school famous for its educational approach by giving talks in New York.” Sam founded the Greek and Latin department, which he now shares with Emily Anhalt. They alternate: one year he teaches Greek while she teaches Latin and vice versa the next year. Sam is the longest serving faculty member of SLC. He is in fact one of the few faculty members who witnessed Sarah Lawrence College go co-ed in 1969. “The students wanted changes. They took over Westlands and seized applications until the school agreed to go co-ed.”
Sam makes campus feel like a village where everyone knows each other… Sam just knows everyone.
On the Friday that we have a conference meeting, Sam and I meet up. He has to go to the library and I opt to come along. Instead of walking he asks a security guard, Sabbatino Miro, to drive him. Sabbatino tells me he is from Naples and that he is good friends with Sam. In the car Sabbatino talks while Sam and I listen. “He’s is my Google parlante, my talking Google, whenever I have a question I ask him and he knows the answer. Other people have Google, I have Sam,” says Sabbatino. As Sam later told me: “He likes me because he can speak Italian and I understand him.” It feels very exclusive to be driven around in the big security car. Sam knows almost everyone on campus, but more important, everyone knows him. He uses these connections and friends when he needs them. Sam makes campus feel like a village where everyone knows each other.
When Sam and I get out of the car, Sabbatino tells him that in 10 years, when Sam is 90 he will buy a bottle of champagne that they will drink together. We say goodbye to Sabbatino, and I choose that opportunity to ask Sam whether he is thinking about retiring. He smiles. “I wouldn’t retire until I feel sick, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke.” He tells me of a funny episode that he remembers. Once he locked himself in his office in Sheffield and took a nap. A student who was looking for him found the door locked but didn’t knock. She looked everywhere but couldn’t find him and called security. At Westlands they called around on campus to find where he was. When they didn’t find him, they sent a security guard to go to his office, assuming that he had died there. When the guard encountered the living Sam Seigle he exclaimed, “You’re supposed to be dead!” Sam seems to embrace the idea that he will die on campus, “One day I’ll be at the blackboard and BOOM—dead.”
“I wouldn’t retire until I feel sick, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke.”
After Sabbatino drops us off, Sam returns some books to Janet Alexander the librarian. He makes sure that she signs for them. He is afraid that a student librarian might forget to register the book he returned and shelve it incorrectly, this way he would be charged for a book he returned. By giving them both to Janet he doesn’t need to worry.
Sam and I walk back to Sheffield down Mead Way. We come across a delivery truck from which a man is moving crates of soft drinks. To my surprise Sam exclaims: “This is my friend Angel from Ecuador. He fills up all the drinks. I let him know when a machine is empty.” As we continue down Mead Way, Sam proceeds to name every single one of the Mead dormitory houses by name as well as telling me about who they were named after. “Mr. and Ms. Lawrence’s preacher was called Robinson, hence Robinson house.” When we arrive at Sheffield, he even waves to the man driving the garbage truck. Sam just knows everyone.
Sam tends to be active during the late hours that these people work at. Over the years he has gotten to know almost all of them. He is also not afraid to talk to strangers and is always happy to make friends. At Bates he often joins students during their lunch to find out more about them. According to him SLC students don’t socialize enough. He tells me, “Our school is so individual. In Harvard there are big long lunch tables and you are forced to meet people.” I ask Sam, “Do you always eat at Bates?” He nods, “I eat there every single day, except for the weekend. I don’t have breakfast other than orange juice.”
In Sheffield A we sit at a big round table that Sam uses for all his classes. I tell him about the rumor that he lives here. He replies quickly, “It’s been my office since 1979, but I live not far from campus.” As he takes his brown leather jacket off, I see that he’s wearing a red shirt, which I’ve seen before. “People think I wear the same clothes every day. I always buy dozens of everything, hence the red shirt,” is his explanation. Wearing the shirt he reminds me of Santa Claus with his white beard and rubber overshoes, which make his feet seem oversized and comical.
While writing down my notes I make the mistake of saying “O.K.” Sam is a vehement believer in correct English and has none of it. “NOT O.K! You say, ‘Oh Jesus, come and help me!’ Kay is not a god!” he grumbles. “Oh Zeus,” I utter sarcastically. He grins at me, “You think I’ll get tired? I will always remind you, no matter how often you say it.”