As a teacher, mentor and experimental-education pioneer,

Seymour Oliver Simches touched the lives

of thousands of students at Tufts University and beyond

 

 

Seymour Simches –

A Personal Recollection

 

In 1968, for reasons that weren't entirely academic, I decided to spend the second half of my junior year in Paris. Seymour Simches made it happen. And although I spent far more time in Istanbul, Athens, Stockholm, Copenhagen, London, Geneva, Monaco, and Juan les Pains, than I did at the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne, he made sure I got full credit.

 

There’s no way Seymour could have known it, but I would end up contributing to Newsweek’s European edition for more than 20 years.  Those few months roaming Europe in my late teens proved to be by far the most valuable single experience of my college education.

 

Seymour Simches had unquestioning faith in the power of knowledge. He loved academia, but not its rigid divisions. If someone had a plan for challenging the limits of traditional academic disciplines, Seymour stood ready to help.

 

The Seymour Simches I knew in the late 60s was a scholar, a teacher, a generalist, and an educational innovator. But I think it's fair to say, that above all, he was a Francophile. His enthusiasm for all things French was as immense as it was infectious.

 

Following my semester abroad, Seymour and I discovered a shared fascination with the Surrealist Movement. He was eager to hear what I thought of experiences like the Luis Bunuel film, La Voie Lactee, that I'd recently seen at a small art cinema on Rue de la Huchette in Paris. And I was amazed when he showed me a drawing and personal inscription that Jean Cocteau had sketched on the frontispiece of his notebook. Which is perhaps how, as an English major, I became the graduate teaching assistant to the Head of the Romance Language Department.

 

It may have been our conversations on the subject that induced Seymour to offer an interdisciplinary course in "Surrealism." I say ‘interdisciplinary’ because it drew together elements of art history, French literature, drama, music and philosophy -- and it did all this through English translations of the original French source materials. This, of course, was vintage Simches. Because he firmly believed that you didn't have to speak or read the French language to appreciate French culture, Seymour reached thousands of students who would not have otherwise ventured into the halls of the Romance Language Department.

 

The following year, I helped him teach a course in "Humor" based on translated readings from Rabelais and Moliere along with works by Sigmund Freud and Arthur Koestler. As always with Seymour’s courses, the classroom was packed.

 

Seymour was passionate in his lectures -- which were usually delivered ad lib with lengthy dramatic readings. But as the “Humor” course progressed, I sensed in him what I could only describe as an obsession with the concept of the "idiot savant." When he approached this subject his normally animated style reached an almost religious fervor.  Shortly after the course ended, I learned during a visit to his home that Seymour was the father of a severely retarded – and institutionalized -- child.

 

Perhaps this personal tragedy had something to do with his remarkable empathy.  Never before, or since, have I met an educator who took such a deep and sincere personal interest in his students.

 

When he first suggested that I assist him with the "Humor" course, I confess some reservations.  There was often a ponderousness about Seymour that was the antithesis of spontaneous humor. He appreciated comedy, but certainly couldn't do it. Or so I thought.

 

As it happened, Seymour was in charge of the first-ever accreditation for Hampshire College. My younger brother --  who was an iconoclast even by Hampshire College standards -- was in the school's first graduating class. Robert was known, among other things, for living in a tree house he’d built in a quiet corner of the campus. It could only be reached by a 15-foot rope ladder that he would pull up behind him when he wasn’t in the mood for visitors.

 

It was exactly the kind of off-beat conduct that Seymour quietly but fervently admired. With an impish twinkle, he described his final accreditation meeting at Hampshire. As the session drew to a conclusion, Hampshire's president asked: “Would you care to meet some of our students before returning to Boston?”

 

"I knew they had a group of handpicked students waiting," Seymour told me. "So, I said, 'That's a wonderful idea. You don't suppose you could find Robert McNitt?'"

 

The only person more shocked than the President of Hampshire College that afternoon, was my brother, who found himself summoned from tree house to boardroom to appear before the college president, the board of trustees and the New England Asssociation of Schools and Colleges accreditation representative – Seymour Simches.

 

 

--Jim McNitt

 

 

 

In Memoriam:

Seymour Simches

 

Jan. 27, 2003 -- Seymour Simches, one of Tufts most popular teachers for nearly four decades and founding director of the Tufts European Center, died on January 18 in Medford, Massachusetts. He was 83.

A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for April 10 at Tufts on the occasion of the Langsam-Barsam-Simches lecture. Please contact the Department of Romance Languages at 617-627-3289 for more information.

Simches, the John Wade Professor of Romance Languages Emeritus, shared his passion for French literature with generations of Tufts undergraduates.

"A printed eulogy about Seymour Simches isn't really enough," said Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, and a friend and colleague for more than 30 years. "Seymour's legacy will be found in the thousands of students whose lives he changed, generations of Tufts students who found in him a surrogate parent, a warm and loving mentor with a heart."

Caren Black Deardorf, J86, echoed similar feelings. "Professor Simches really made his mark on thousands of students, on Tufts, on Talloires and anyone who met him," she said. "It feels like that generation is passing, and it's even more important to keep it alive in our support of the European Center."

In an interview in 1998, Simches defined a good teacher as someone who listened, who was open to exchange. "You have to plant the seed and water the plant so that it can grow," he said. "[You have to] find out what is in the student and encourage that seed to grow."

Joel Rosenberg, associate professor of Judaic Studies and International Letters and Visual Studies, met Simches in 1980. He recalled the senior faculty member's kindness and how he inspired his own growing career as a Tufts professor.

"It was from Seymour that I derived what has probably been my most successful teaching innovation: allocating time for students to lead discussion," he said. "It opened up a whole new dimension of teaching for me because it taught me to pay attention to how the subject is resonating with students and how to build on their responses to the material. I was impressed by his gentle wisdom in dealing with students, his way of making the student feel valued and encouraged."

Simches brought an indefatigable enthusiasm to teaching and learning, serving as chair of the Department of Romance Languages, director of the innovative College Within and as one of the founders of the Experimental College. In working closely with former President Jean Mayer, he was tapped in 1978 to transform a priory in Talloires, France, the gift of Charlotte and Donald MacJannet, A16, into the Tufts European Center.

As founding director, Simches "quickly understood what Jean Mayer and the MacJannets wanted to accomplish in Talloires, and with wit, style and common sense, set forth to launch this American enterprise deep in the heart of France," said Mary Harris, F70, former director of the Tufts European Center. "He was an "ambassador" of the U.S. to France -- and importantly vice versa -- no one at Tufts could have done it better. We are all in his debt, 25 years later, as the Tufts European Center flourishes."

"Seymour was a remarkable man, and a true intellectual," said Carol Deveaux, J63, his former staff assistant. "His delight for learning was contagious, and he was an inspiration to his students, his colleagues and everyone whose lives he touched. His passing is a great loss to those who knew him."

On the national level, Simches was active during the 1960s as an advocate for teaching languages to young children. He was vice chair of the Northeast Conference of Foreign Language Teachers, a consultant on foreign languages for the Department of Education and director of the foreign language institutes for the National Defense Education Act, and director of the Institute International Linguistique Boulogne-sur mer.

The French Government honored him with four awards: three for academic contributions, and the first, the Medaille de L'Aeronatique, in 1945, for service during World War II. Simches, stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, was selected to teach a course on meteorology to French pilots.

He was born in 1919, the last of six children, to Jewish Lithuanian immigrants in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where his father was a tailor. He graduated magna cum laude from Boston University and went on to Harvard where he earned his master's and doctorate. He arrived at Tufts in 1954 as an assistant professor of Romance Languages, rising to full professor and in 1962 to the John Wade Professor of Modern Languages.

Simches retired in 1990, but continued to share his love of teaching. He coached alumni in readings of Moliere's Imaginary Invalid at the 1995 Alumni College in Talloires and students gathered his Medford home for seminars offered through the Experimental College.

Contributions in his memory may be made to the Seymour Simches Scholarship Fund, c/o Tufts University, European Center, 108 Packard Avenue, Medford, MA 02155 or to Jewish Family and Children Services, 31 New Chardon St., Boston, MA 02144.

 

 

 

 

 

Tufts Experimental College

Loses A Friend

 

The Experimental College lost a very important friend and instructor when Seymour Simches died last January. Seymour had been involved in just about every aspect of the Experimental College. He was a member of the committee that “invented” the Ex College and was a faculty member on the first Experimental College Board.

 

In the fall of 1964, Seymour was part of the teaching team that taught the first Ex College course, The  course, the Contemporary European Novel, was taught in English, (non-English literature was generally taught in the original language) crossed department lines, was team taught, and open to anyone (including staff) who

wanted to attend and do the work. He ended his career as a member our Emeritus Program.

 

In total, he taught  thirteen times in the Ex College. His last courses echoed his deep belief that education should not be just subject based but also include values and social concerns. His course, Mentorship and Human Values: Moral Dilemmas and Spiritual Development was an intense academic experience that centered on the “collective shadow” as seen in selected works of literature. The class met in his home and gave the students an experience they could get no where else at Tufts. We will be forever thankful for his love of teaching and his consummate pride in being part of the Experimental College founding “fathers.”

 

 

















 

www.jimmcnitt.com

 

"In my opinion, we were put on earth to use our talents to make this world a better place to live.”  –Seymour Simches   (1920 – 2003)

Above: At Tufts 1960

Seymour Oliver Simches received a Ph.D. in Romance Languages from Harvard University in 1950. In 1954, he accepted the position of assistant professor of Romance Languages at Tufts and in 1962 was named John Wade Professor of Modern Languages. Professor Simches has been prominent as an innovator in higher education by developing new teaching methods in foreign languages. He helped establish the Experimental College in 1964 and taught the first course in the college.

1977