About a month and a half after his untimely passing, colleagues, faculty, students past and present, friends and family gathered in the Collins Center for the Arts and celebrated the life of Charles Slavin, former dean of the University of Maine Honors College.
Stories were shared, Springsteen was played, laughter was spilled, tears were shed and the legacy of a man was crystallized by the hundreds who gathered at the UMaine campus and the hundreds more who watched around the world on the live stream of Celebrating Charlie.
After an opening from Honors College coordinator of student academic services and budget Barbara Ouellette, UMaine President Paul Ferguson addressed the audience representing the university.
“I love the concept of celebrating Charlie,” Ferguson said. “How else would you do it?”
After recalling his first interactions with Slavin and the fierce, intense gaze that was accompanied by a warmth in his face “that [made] you [feel] immediately comfortable,” Ferguson brought up the emotions that flushed over him in the wake of Slavin’s passing.
“After getting over the sudden jolt, I hope you all experienced the same joy and freshness that washed over you as you realized what a wonderful and successful life [Slavin lived],” Ferguson said. “What an impact he had on this university. His life was lived so well that his impact will live for so long.”
Following Ferguson was UMaine Provost Susan Hunter, who made the audience chuckle after putting her and Slavin’s relationship in professional terms.
“Charlie was truly one of my buddies, and to be honest, provosts don’t get to have much of those.”
After recalling how Slavin would acrostically read the morning agenda, Hunter read her final “Charlie Agenda,” using each letter of his name to describe Slavin’s personality and commitment to honors.
“L is for leadership. His very capable leadership has led to the growth in reputation and success of the Honors College,” Hunter said. “L is also for legacy. His enduring legacy, which will clearly outlast all of us, was overseeing the transformation of our honors program into a successful and highly respectful Honors College.
“E is for excellent, as in he was a most excellent being,” Hunter continued. “Charlie was committed to the Honors College, but most of all, he was committed to the students. If we had called central casting and asked them to send us a Dean for the Honors College, Charlie would have popped out of the box.”
As Hunter exited the stage, the picture on the projection behind the speaker changed from a faculty photo of the honors staff to one of Slavin and longtime friend and UMaine math professor Bob Franzosa back in college — both with a lot more hair.
“I’m not normally inspired by Clint Eastwood,” Franzosa said as he started his speech and placed a little green chair atop the podium, receiving a large laugh from the audience. The chair was a replica of the ones Franzosa and Slavin would sit at in the University of Wisconsin’s Student Union, which had a terrace overlooking Lake Mendota.
“It was a great place to hang out in the summer time,” Franzosa said. “We spent lots of time there, having a beer, or two or three or four.”
“One thing Charlie and I lamented when we came here to the University of Maine, and one we’ve lamented for the past 30 years, is there’s no terrace here,” Fransoza continued. “Why not get a big flatbed truck, take the Union, put it on the truck and take it down to the Stillwater River and put a patio out back and call it the ‘Charlie Slavin Terrace.’ I can assure you enrollment at the university will increase by a few thousand.”
Franzosa continued on about the differences he had with his friend of 35 years.
“It’s in sports where I can explain how special Charlie was,” Franzosa said. “I’m a Red Sox fan and Charlie was a Yankee fan. Here was this guy that I let be such a big part of my life for 35 years, and he was a Yankees fan. There had to be something so much more to him than that.”
A recurring theme played out in almost every speech, and it was the topic of Slavin’s love for martinis.
“In recent years, I began to get worried because Charlie would drink martinis when we would get together, but that was okay,” Franzosa said. “Charlie was an administrator; I’m a faculty member. He drinks martinis; I drink beer. He’s a Yankees fan; I’m a Red Sox fan. We can make this work.”
Franzosa closed his speech by explaining how he and his wife had to cancel a trip back to the University of Wisconsin in the wake of Slavin’s passing. After posthumously apologizing to Slavin for abandoning the trip back to the place where they shared so many memories, Franzosa promised he’d get back to the terrace and have a beer like old times.
“I’ll get back to Madison, Wisconsin someday and I’ll have a beer, or two, or three on the terrace to celebrate Charlie. But I’ll never be a martini drinker. Charlie is the only one I would have allowed to show me how.”
Following Franzosa was former Honors College graduate and State Representative Emily Cain.
In an emotional speech, Cain stressed how her UMaine experience can’t be told without Slavin.
“I am a student of Charlie, not just in academics and work, but in life,” she said. “Charlie always saw you as bigger than you could ever see yourself.”
Cain was heavily involved with Slavin in converting Colvin Hall into the hub of the Honors College. Which is why, Cain said, she chose the rendering of Colvin Hall as the slide representing Slavin while she spoke.
“To me, Colvin Hall embodies everything that Charlie was. It was his vision, his ability to see this beautiful old building as the thriving pulse of the Honors College,” Cain said. “It is in that building, countless times, that I would find myself in Charlie’s office, needing to close the door. Charlie’s door was always open but when it was closed it meant that somebody was in there that needed Charlie’s help.”
Cain, like most of the speakers, ended their notes on when they found out about Slavin’s passing.
“I cannot express how I have personally never felt such a profoundly overwhelming and complete sense of loss and sadness,” Cain said. “But I’ve also never felt so much gratitude toward one person for making so much difference in my life.”
After a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung in the style of K.D. Lang by UMaine female a cappella group Renaissance, a few members of Slavin’s extended family spoke of Slavin the brother-in-law and Slavin the father.
“To us, Charlie was just Charlie,” said Terri Perelman-Hall, Slavin’s sister-in-law. “We did not associate him with his professional or personal accomplishments, we just thought of him as a great guy. He was a man we began to think of as thoughtful, caring, giving and loving.”
While Slavin’s life as a family man was often brought up in conversations with his students, his love for his wife Nancy Hall and their adopted son Sam was brought to life by Perelman-Hall.
“When Nancy and Charlie adopted Sam, we got to see Charlie function as the devoted father he was. Anyone who had seen Charlie with Sam knew how much he cared about and loved him,” Perelman-Hall said. “Adopting a child who had spent the first three years of his life in an orphanage in Kazakhstan can be challenging and Charlie, along with Nancy, worked very hard to make Sam feel loved, safe and secure.
“There were times when Charlie may have gotten over-enthusiastic as a parent,” Perelman-Hall continued. “Such as the time when my brother-in-law was visiting and we accompanied Charlie and Nancy to one of Sam’s soccer games. There, Charlie almost got thrown off the sidelines by expressing his opinion to the referees, rather vigorously.”
The last guest speaker of the evening was Matthew Westhoven, another person who saw Slavin as a father. Slavin started dating Westhoven’s mother when he and his sister, Megan, were 8 years old. After that relationship ended, the one planted by Slavin to the young Westhovens remained.
“Charlie helped raise both of us as kids, and as we grew into adults, he started his second family with Nancy and Sam, but nothing ever changed,” Westhoven said.
After hearing about Slavin’s passing, Westhoven and his sister came up to UMaine to see some of Slavin’s work.
“For me, I had never seen Charlie’s office, I had never been in the Honors College — to me he was still just a math professor,” Westhoven said. “I didn’t really know what he did. It was great to hear the stories — the martini stories, the chili pepper stories — to go into his office and look around, it was really great to hear what he did for the university, separate from myself or Megan or Sam.”
Once the speakers were done, the lights were dimmed and a slide show depicting Slavin candidly enjoying time with family, friends, faculty and colleagues as Springsteen’s “Rosalita” — Slavin’s favorite Boss hit — and “The Rising” accompanied the photos. When “The Rising” started, the slides switched from shots primarily of Slavin to pictures sent in by current and former UMaine students and supporters, raising a Stein in memory of Slavin. Dozens of adoring faces filled their mugs one last time for Slavin.
The closing to Hunter’s speech summed up everyone’s thoughts about Slavin.
“Charlie stories will be shared for years to come,” she said. “I’m not much of a martini drinker, but every now and then, I’m going to have one so I can be a little more like my friend Charlie.”
The University of Maine is recognizing Slavin in a number of ways, the first being the Charlie Slavin UMaine Fund, which was organized by Slavin’s family that will honor Slavin’s lasting impact at UMaine. Contributions to the fund can be made payable to the University of Maine Foundation, 2 Alumni Place, Orono, Maine, 04469 or at www.umainefoundation.org. In addition to the fund, the Class of 2012 is planting a tree in a new garden that is being created next to the New Balance Student Recreation Center. The garden will be completed by homecoming.
The Honors College will acknowledge Slavin by dedicating the 2012 edition of MINERVA, the annual Honors College magazine.
Lastly, the National Collegiate Honors Council will dedicate its upcoming yearly journal to Slavin and will recognize him at the national conference in Boston this November.