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Oct. 8, 2002 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Educator and Philosopher Charles Wegener, 1921-2002

Charles Wegener
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Charles Wegener, a teacher and innovator in undergraduate education who helped create the University of Chicago’s New Collegiate Division and was instrumental in adapting the college’s educational traditions during the ’60s and ’70s, died unexpectedly on Sunday night of a heart attack. He was 81 years old.

Wegener was the Howard L. Willet Emeritus professor in the college and served on the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods. He was a crucial part of the legendary “Hutchins College” and was largely responsible for a number of innovations in the curriculum, including founding both the Religion and Humanities and the Politics, Rhetoric, Economics and Law programs as well as reviving the Committee on Ideas and Methods. David Smigelskis, Associate Professor in the New Collegiate Division and the Humanities and a former student of Wegener’s who became a close colleague and collaborator, said that “Charles Wegener was someone who thought that just about anything could be both better appreciated and enriched by reflection. Most of his University work was thus preoccupied with cultivating the character of intellectuals, people for whom the advancement of learning and the pursuit of happiness should and could support each other.”

Born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 29, 1921, Wegener was educated at Lutheran parochial schools, and spent the whole of his higher education and academic career at the University of Chicago. He earned his B.A. in 1942 and Ph.D. in 1950, both in Philosophy. Before graduate school, Wegener served in the Army for four years, including supervising the storage of army vehicles in Japan; his first published work was an article on fire control for the Coast Artillery Journal. In 1950, Wegener was hired as an Instructor in Humanities, becoming Assistant Professor in 1951, Associate Professor in 1958, and Professor in 1968. In 1973 he became the first Howard L. Willet Professor in the College.

Wegener self-effacingly described his lifelong commitment to education at the College: “Fundamentally, I am a rather old-fashioned college teacher - I teach, I read books, I think, I talk to my colleagues. I have never attempted to make a career by publishing, and my career is some quiet and unspectacular testimony to the fact that one can still get away with this sort of thing at a ‘major’ university.” When Wegener began teaching in the ’50s the College curriculum consisted of a set of fixed courses. The two “integrating courses” that usually concluded the program were the History of Western Civilization and “OMP” (Organization, Methods and Principles). OMP was considered the most remarkable course, famous and notorious among students during and after their collegiate career and the one by which the college of that time was most often judged. Wegener taught in and supervised teaching of OMP until it closed down in the ’60s, work for which he received the Quantrell award for undergraduate teaching in 1954.

Wegener was one of the key figures during the reorganization of the University of Chicago’s undergraduate college in the ’60s and ’70s. When the college was reorganized into five Collegiate Divisions, he reinvented Ideas and Methods as an undergraduate concentration in the New Collegiate Division and served for six years as the Master of the Division. During that time he chaired a series of committees inquiring into the state of the curriculum during the heated debates about the move from the “Old” to the “New” college. Wegener is remembered as commenting that people complained that he did not publish. But, he continued, “if someone were to add up the memos and such I wrote in this role I would probably be one of the most prolific writers on campus, particularly given the fact that each one was on a different topic or problem.” Dennis Hutchinson, William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and the current Master of the New Collegiate Division, says that “Charles helped to define the Division’s character and standards in everything he did, from overseeing concentrations, to supervising theses and conducting workshops. But he was first and foremost an earnest and engaging colleague, curious about everything, instinctively rigorous and devoid of pretense.”

Wegener’s leadership in the college led to his Liberal Education and the Modern University (University of Chicago Press, 1978), an extended reflection on what it means to have a curriculum, based on his own experiences in helping create one. Wegener’s attention then shifted to the graduate Committee of Ideas and Methods of which he was Chairman for nine years. Wegener also served as Associate Dean of the College and Chair of the Library Board, during which time he presided over the move of the Crerar Science Library from downtown to the University of Chicago campus. He told stories of exploring the downtown building, the discovery of long-unopened rooms, boxes, valuable items rotting away or uncatalogued and rescued for posterity.

His friend and colleage Peter Dembowski, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Linguistics, the Committee on Medieval Studies, and the College remembers a tremendously learned “genuine intellectual” who had no time for intellectual pretensions. At their first faculty meeting together, Dembowski dropped some Latin into the conversation, whereupon Wegener brought him up short with the phrase “Aut Latina aut mihi”–“It’s either Latin or me!” After that, Dembowski says, “We got along splendidly. He just refused to become a snob. He was one of the few who could really read Kant in German–most people cannot read it in any language.” Wegener’s low profile befit a very private man occupied with teaching, learning and helping others. Dembowski says that “He was good friends with many important people in the university. He was always appreciated and always listened to but he himself did not wish to assume very important roles. When there was a need for a new dean in the college he absolutely refused to be considered. He said ‘I’m not good enough.’ That’s what good people say.”

Upon retiring, Wegener finally got a chance to publish a seemingly strictly academic book, The Discipline of Taste and Feeling (University of Chicago Press, 1992). In the preface he wrote “Those who find this book a somewhat bizarre commentary on certain parts of Kant’s third critique are to be congratulated on their perspicacity.” Yet even here, the topic of cultivating people’s aesthetic senses remained close to the serious higher education to which he devoted his life. As Smigelskis put it, “His University work was an extended meditation on and an attempt to institutionalize the University’s motto - Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur, ‘Let knowledge grow and so be human life enriched.’”

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Lamb Wegener; his daughters Paula Schiller (Patrick) Gowans, Julie (Charles Risch) Schiller, and Amy Wegener (Bruce) Noble; and grandchildren Max and James Risch and Andrew Noble. There will be a funeral service for the family in Madison, Wisconsin. Plans for a University of Chicago memorial service are still being formulated.
Last modified at 11:25 AM CST on Tuesday, October 15, 2002.

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