Nov. 7, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 4

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    Wegener, who helped found New Collegiate Division, dies at 81

    Charles Wegener, a teacher and innovator in undergraduate education who helped create the University’s New Collegiate Division and who was instrumental in adapting the College’s educational traditions during the ’60s and ’70s, died Sunday, Oct. 6. He was 81.

    Wegener was the Howard L. Willet Professor Emeritus 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, the Humanities, and a former student of Wegener’s who became a close colleague, said: “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.”

    Born in Oak Park, Ill., in 1921, Wegener spent the whole of his higher education and academic career at 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. In 1950, he was hired as an Instructor in Humanities, becoming an 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 commitment to education in 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.” Wegener received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1954 for teaching Organization, Methods and Principles, a core course at the time.

    Wegener was a key figure during the reorganization of the University’s undergraduate College in the ’60s and ’70s, when he reinvented Ideas and Methods as an undergraduate concentration in the New Collegiate Division and served for six years as 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.

    “Charles helped to define the division’s character and standards in everything he did, from overseeing concentrations to supervising theses and conducting workshops,” said Dennis Hutchinson, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and the current Master of the New Collegiate Division. “He was first and foremost an earnest and engaging colleague, curious about everything, instinctively rigorous and devoid of pretense.”

    In addition to chairing the graduate Committee of Ideas and Methods for nine years during that period, Wegener served as Associate Dean of the College and Chair of the Library Board, presiding over the move of the John Crerar Science Library from downtown to the University campus.

    His friend and colleague Peter Dembowski, a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Romance Languages & Literatures, Linguistics and the College, remembers Wegener as a tremendously learned “genuine intellectual,” who had no time for pretensions. “He just refused to become a snob,” Dembowski said.

    Upon retiring, Wegener did publish a seemingly strictly academic book, The Discipline of Taste and Feeling (University Press, 1992). Yet even here, said Smigelskis, “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.’”

    Wegener 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. A memorial service at the University is planned for a future date.