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Charles Wegener, 1921-2002

Charles Wegener, the former Howard L. Willet professor in the College died unexpectedly October 6 of a heart attack. He was 81 years old.

Largely responsible for a number of curriculum innovations, 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, Wegener was instrumental in creating the University’s New Collegiate Division and a key part of the legendary “Hutchins College.”

“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,” said David Smigelskis, associate professor in the New Collegiate Division and the Humanities and a former student of Wegener’s.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 29, 1921, Wegener spent his entire higher education and academic career at Chicago. In 1942 and 1950, Wegener earned a B.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy, respectively, from the University. He was hired in 1950 as an instructor in the humanities division, becoming an assistant professor in 1951, an associate professor in 1958, and professor in 1968.

“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 once said.

Wegener received the Quantrell award for undergraduate teaching in 1954 for both his teaching and supervising of teaching of Organized, Methods and Principles (OMP), a course considered by students the most remarkable of its time and the one by which the college was most often judged until it closed down in the 1960s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the College was reorganized into five Collegiate Divisions, Wegener reinvented Ideas and Methods as an undergraduate concentration in the New Collegiate Division serving for six years as the Master of the Division. He also chaired a series of committees inquiring into the state of the curriculum during a time of much heated debate 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. But he was first and foremost an earnest and engaging colleague, curious about everything, instinctively rigorous and devoid of pretense,” Dennis Hutchinson, William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and the current Master of the New Collegiate Division, said.

Additionally, Wegener chaired the graduate Committee of Ideas and Methods for nine years and 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’s campus.

According to longtime friend and colleague, Peter Dembowski, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Linguisitcs, the Committee on Medieval Studies, and the College, Wegener will be remembered as a genuine intellectual who kept a low profile. “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.”

“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 human life be enriched,” Dembowski said.

Wegener is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, his daughters, Paula, Julie, and Amy; and grandchildren, Max and James Risch and Andrew Noble. Plans for a University memorial service are still in the works.