A Brief Remembrance of Steven W. Siegel

This morning I attended the funeral service for Steven W. Siegel, a friend of more than thirty years whose premature death at 65 is much to be deplored.  Although I thought the remembrances spoken at the service evoked this wonderful man very well, I wanted to add a few comments to help memorialize him in cyberspace.

When I first met Steve after joining Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (as it was then named), NYC's gay synagogue, in 1977, he was also a relatively new member but I believe had already claimed the synagogue's newsletter as his domain.  And this was fairly typical of Steve, who was a devoted historian and archivist.  He pushed the 92nd Street Y to develop an appropriately-organized archive of its sound recordings of musical and other cultural events, winning himself a job as an Archivist at a time when few such institutions employed people in such a capacity, and ultimately becoming Director of the Y's library as well, until that organization made the lamentable decision in 2009 to disperse its collection and convert the library space into offices, precipitating his early partial retirement.  (Steve continued to consult with the Y on its archives and to undertake private research jobs as a historian-genealogist until he became too ill to continue.)

When my Cornell classmate Mark Schwartz and I resolved after attending our 5th reunion event in 1979 to start an LGBT alumni association, Steve was an early recruit, being already very active in Cornell alumni activities, and played a major role in getting the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association (CUGALA) off the ground and sustaining it through difficult times. (He was a member of the class of 1968 in the College of Engineering.) 

Those were also the days when Steve was present and participating in the creation of the emerging field of Jewish genealogy, one of his lifetime passions.  Up to his death, he had served continuously as a board member of the Jewish Genealogical Society in New York City, had been a co-editor of its newsletter (after having co-edited an independent Jewish genealogy publication, Toledot, for several years), and had also served as the organization's president.  He was also very active in the NY archivist community.

Steve was very active in Cornell alumni affairs in addition to CUGALA – whose main coordinator he was for several decades.  He was active on the board of Cornell University Hillel and the Cornell Alumni Association, participated in interviewing high school students in the NYC metro area who were interested in learning about Cornell, was a president of his Cornell class, and frequently attended Cornell events in New York and Ithaca. 

But all this organizational involvement, while typical of Steve, who was a persistent and valued volunteer, hardly begins to say everything about him. 

For almost 30 years, he was partnered as soulmates with Rob Selden, who passed away a few years ago.  They were absolutely devoted to each other, despite maintaining separate residences.  At almost any public event you could imagine, they were together, traveling, going to organizational events, and were frequent patrons of opera, symphony concerts, vocal recitals and theater.  (My most frequent surprise encounters with them were in the intermissions at NYC Opera at Lincoln Center.)  Rob was sometimes a difficult person to get along with, being very argumentative, while Steve, although also a perfectionist, was much more accommodating to the quirks of others.  As a result, they worked very well as a couple, complementing each other, and sharing great enthusiasm and curiosity about everything going on.

Steve only confided about his battle with cancer with a relatively small circle of acquaintances he wanted to know what was going on.  I was privileged to be part of that group.  When Cornell University announced that Steve would be honored with a special alumni service award named after former CU President Frank Rhodes in a ceremony in Ithaca, I immediately contacted him about my husband Tim and I going to the ceremony.  As it turned out, we were able to facilitate Steve's last visit to Cornell for the September 16, 2011, event.  Tim rented a car and drove us, which was easier on Steve than taking the Cornell bus.  He put off by a week the start of a new regimen of chemotherapy in order to be able to make this trip, which was exhausting for him but I think very important for his morale. 

Although we continued to exchange email, I last saw Steve when we had dinner on October 22.  I had originally invited him to join me for the NY Philharmonic concert that night, but he had declined because he hoped to be in Ithaca that weekend for an alumni association board meeting.  But in the event he didn't feel well enough to make the trip, so we had dinner before I went to the concert, having previously exchanged my other ticket.  As per his usual request, we had Chinese food, of which Steve was a particular fan!  Although we continued to have email contact until mid-December and were planning another get-together, it was not to be.

I will really miss him, and I think so many people and organizations  he was affecting on a regular basis will miss him.  He was part of the glue holding CUGALA together for many years, and I hope some of the younger alumni who have shown interest will be able to fill that gap, but it will be difficult, given how much his personal energy and diligence meant to the organzation.  Farewell, friend!

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