Melvin Shefftz (1929–2011)
David Hammer, February 2012
Historian of modern Britain
Melvin Shefftz, who retired as associate professor of history at Binghamton University, died on July 14, 2011 in Binghamton, New York after a short illness. He was 82.
Melvin Charles Shefftz was born on April 15, 1929, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His family on both sides were immigrants from eastern Europe; his mother grew up in Czarist Russia in a home with a dirt floor. Melvin Shefftz's own childhood was marked by a love for learning and reading and by early academic success: he attended Boston Latin School and then Harvard University, where he earned, in succession, AB, AM and PhD degrees. It was at Harvard that he met his future wife, Claire, who herself had been a Harvard graduate student. They were married in 1963, and remained so for nearly 50 years.
While working on his PhD, Shefftz taught at Northeastern University, Syracuse University, and the University of Michigan. In 1962 he accepted an appointment at a small school in upstate New York, then called Harpur College. He remained at this school, which became the core of SUNY-Binghamton (later renamed Binghamton University), until his retirement in 2007.
Shefftz's PhD dissertation was on the British Labour Party and the General Strike of 1926, and his formal academic specialty was British and Modern European History. His learning on these subjects was very deep: he seemed to have read everything, and to have an opinion on everything that happened in Europe between the Protestant reformation and the end of the Second World War. And not just Europe. When a new subject came to interest him—as the history of Indochina did during the Vietnam War—Shefftz would acquire and read everything available in English. And, since everything that he read he retained, his store of knowledge was immense, and always available to his students.
Shefftz's reading habits were striking. He read at home, while washing the dishes, and he read in supermarket checkout lines. He read in elevators, sometimes missing his floor, and he read in his car when stopped by a red light. He read as he walked from his classroom to the campus parking lot, occasionally colliding with small crowds of students who stood in his way. He was famous at his local ski facility for reading on the chairlift during a storm, and was legendary at Harvard for reading in the shower, washing himself with one hand while trying, with the other, to hold his book beyond the stream of water. All this reading, of course, required a constant supply of new books, which led to a private library numbering in the thousands of volumes. In the areas that interested him the most—labor history, the history of European socialist movements, the two World Wars—his library was larger than that of his school's.
The war in Vietnam played a formative role in Shefftz's adult life. He was an early and active opponent of American involvement, which he viewed as morally wrong and inconsistent with this country's best traditions and vital interests. His opposition to the war led him to campaign for anti-war political candidates, and in 1968 he served as chair of Broome County Citizens for Eugene McCarthy, a politician whose intelligence and scholarly disposition he much admired. Four years later, in 1972, he worked for the election of George McGovern. Shefftz also involved himself in campus politics. Here, however, his instincts could be viewed as conservative: he was opposed to currents in the student left that he viewed as anti-intellectual and destructive. In all his activities, both political and academic, he displayed a few hallmark qualities: he was generous to his opponents, unquenchable in his energy, and fearless.
While Shefftz was a fine writer, he displayed his talents and personality most fully in conversation. This invariably was delightful and informative but not what is commonly called "linear". Thus, his remarks might commence with a discussion of the Chartist movement, develop into an analysis of 19th-century British radicals and their influence on Abraham Lincoln, segue into an observation on the reverence with which American Jews hold Lincoln, veer into a disquisition on the influence of Hungarian émigrés on the American movie industry (including a discussion of Bela Lugosi's connections to the government of Count Karolyi), leap from there to an appreciation of Marlon Brando and the observation that great American actors seem to start thin and end fat (he was thinking of Brando and Orson Welles), and culminate with a suggestion that everyone at the table join him for pastrami sandwiches. On each of these topics Shefftz would be interesting and occasionally hilarious, and on the issue of pastrami, utterly persuasive.
Melvin Shefftz taught until his late seventies, and remained intellectually active until the end of his life. At retiree luncheons with guest speakers he was often the first with a question, comment, or correction. He is survived by his wife Claire, his sister Barbara, two sons Jonathan and Benjamin, and two grandchildren.