Written By Mary Yan ’18 and Griffin Somaratne ’18
Generation after generation of Thacher students have seen the tilted cap and the thick vibrant scarves. We have heard the worldly and aware assembly announcements and have basked in the glow of Marvin H. Shagam. Formal dinners at his iconic table by the southeast corner window of the dining hall held thought-provoking, introspective discussion that brought the Thacher bubble into international affairs.
Like the global initiative program named after him, Mr. Shagam possessed a deep concern and passion for the people, culture, and beauty in the world around him. Yet, much is unknown about his past; some students and faculty speculate that his role in reconnaissance during World War II delved deeper into espionage, while others recall his obsession with perpetuating the “Ghost of Upper School.”
Marvin H. Shagam, a believer in ghosts, a fashion icon, a dear friend, teacher, and an integral element of the Thacher community, passed away peacefully at 3:10 p.m. on August 9th at the Ojai Continuing Care Center. His longtime Thacher colleague and friend, Jake Jacobsen, was by his side. Ninety-two years old, Marvin remained lucid until his final hours. In his email informing the Thacher community of Marvin’s passing, Headmaster Mr. Mulligan recalled, “He told us that he was ready to move on when he went into the Center, and as always, he was true to his word.” To honor the warm soul Marvin Shagam gifted the Thacher School and the world with, we reflect upon his incredible life:
Marvin H. Shagam was born in West Virginia on April 2, 1924 as the only child of Louis and Clara (Silverstein) Shagam. He attended high school in Donora, Pennsylvania, became class president, and graduated at the top of his class in 1942. Against the wishes of his father, Marvin 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 of college, Marvin, once more against his father’s wishes, enlisted in the military, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. He served as an intelligence officer (or maybe more) and after specialized training in Hindustani at the University of Pennsylvania, the Army sent him to Burma (present-day Myanmar). In Burma, Marvin’s new language skills were of little use to him as he examined Japanese prisoners of war.
After the war, he returned stateside and resumed his studies at Washington and Jefferson, graduating in 1947 magna cum laude with a political science major. Once he completed his undergraduate, Marvin enrolled at Harvard Law School, but after a year there his sights had focused on becoming a teacher, so he accepted a fellowship to study political philosophy at the University of Oxford.
Three years at Oxford and Marvin took a teaching position at the Mount House School in Tavistock, Devon, England, where he taught middle school. Two years later, his father’s health drew him back to the states, where he found a position teaching middle schoolers at the Williston School in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Hoping to gain experience teaching at the high school level, Shagam accepted a position at the Westtown School, a Quaker institution in West Chester, Pennsylvania. There, he coached lower school soccer, sponsored the debate and model railroad clubs, and pursued his interests in hiking and camping.
During his years in the military, Marvin had developed an appreciation for California. After picking Thacher more or less at random, he sent a letter of introduction to the then-Headmaster Newton Chase, who had learned only the day before that one of his teachers had been drafted into the Korean War and promptly invited Marvin to join the Thacher faculty.
Marvin, now known as Mr. Shagam, was not the always the calm, introspective man sitting in the metal chair on the pergola during assemblies before his announcements. In the beginning of his career, he was strict and disagreeable, for he had devout conviction in his beliefs and moral code. However, with age and experience, Mr. Shagam gradually became a legend at Thacher. He developed strong friendships with his colleagues and grew as a respected teacher and a compassionate ear for all. He was well versed in politics and history, well traveled, and had a sharp mind that followed him until the very end.
The quintessential aspect of Mr. Shagam that his colleagues, students, and friends revered was his deep, thoughtful kindness. A strong advocate for the re-education of prisoners and their reintegration into society, Mr. Shagam invested a great deal of time and money into helping prisoners get back on their feet. His generosity, however, extends far beyond this single example.
Fueled by his interest in the world, Mr. Shagam traveled around the globe, racking up more than two million airline miles. Instead of using them to benefit himself, however, Mr. Shagam gave them as gifts to faculty members and the school, enabling every academic department to visit a country of their choice. “He was able to turn his love for world travel into the the actual ability for us to travel the world,” Mr. Jacobsen said as he reminisced about the English department’s trip to Brazil and mentioned the History department’s trip to Russia, both of which were stunning gifts from Mr. Shagam.
For Mr. Shagam’s colleagues, his generosity and kindness might be what they remember most about him. For many students, Mr. Shagam was an inspiration, a figure to rally behind in dark times. Sensitive and deeply attentive to the pain and difficulties of others, Mr. Shagam became a source of comfort to many students at Thacher, especially those who struggled academically or socially. For those students, Mr. Shagam was the ultimate sympathetic ear; he allowed students who didn’t fit into the “Thacher mold” to feel heard and seen, and he guided many through their toughest days at Thacher. Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan believed his greatest “accomplishment” (for he had innumerable) was that Mr. Shagam “remained a student to his students and colleagues—that is, he remained, to the end, open to the possibilities in every discussion, conversation, even as he stood firm for his beliefs. I would say that he ‘accomplished’ a principled, richly peopled life.”
When asked about his most cherished memory of Mr. Shagam, Mr. Jacobsen talked about twenty-five years of breakfast shared at his corner table and the wide range of discussions that took place there. “His mind was so sharp,” Mr. Jacobsen told us, “that no matter what the topic was, he could always add some interesting, personal tidbits to it.” Mr. Shagam’s table became a symbol of intellectual conversations and heartfelt discussions.
When Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan further reflected on her memories of Mr. Shagam, she told us, “It was [his] integrity that left the most indelible mark on me–his adherence to principled, humane behavior. And his kindness, his genuine acceptance of all kinds of people. And his ability to listen with keen discernment somehow absent of judgment. And his humor, which was witty and so, so intelligent. And the way he expressed gratitude, especially in his last years, to those who surrounded him to help.”
Mr. Mulligan said in his final reflection, “Mr. Shagam’s greatest gift to the community was that he was a keen, attentive, focused listener. He cared very deeply about what you had to say. He then followed up on your perspective with fascinating and pertinent questions. And he made it clear that your wellbeing and long-term health and happiness is the most important factor in your life. Many students went to him when they were troubled from either issues at home or from mistakes they made at school. He always helped them understand that doing the right thing was always the best decision for the long run regardless of the short-term negative implications. In so doing, he helped students clear their conscience and get on the right path, and this made all the difference in their lives. Generations of Thacher students are indebted to Mr. Shagam for helping them find their true North on their moral compass.”
Mr. Shagam was a truly extraordinary addition to the world, and to celebrate his life, students, faculty, and all the others whom he touched should remember him for the gifts he offered the world. His cap and scarf that hang above his corner table in the dining hall stand as a symbol for the lasting impression of Marvin H. Shagam on the Thacher community and the world.
Documentation of Shagam’s pre-Thacher years for this story was provided by the Thacher Communications Office.