Kate Seelye

The story of an AUB professor in the 1920s



In the main photo, the Seelyes just arriving at their new home in Beirut, oct.1919 after spending two weeks in the mountains subsequent to their arrival to Lebanon. The other photos show professor Seelye with students, friends, colleagues and AUB outings as well as Bliss street in the 1920s

My grandparents arrived in Beirut in 1919, two children in tow, ready to embark on a new life teaching at the American University of Beirut. For my grandfather, Laurens Seelye, Beirut was a novel experience. The son of an American professor of ancient Greek who taught at Wooster College in Ohio, Laurens’ foreign encounters did not extend beyond the shores of Manhattan. For his wife, Kate Chambers, however, Beirut was almost like returning home. Born in Erzroum, Turkey to a Canadian missionary father and an American mother raised in Mosul, Chambers was comfortable with the polyglot culture of late 19th century Turkey. She grew up speaking Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish and Arabic and found in Beirut a similar complex mix of identities and languages. It was Kate Chambers who led my patrician grandfather – otherwise destined for a life in American academia – to a region just emerging from a long slumber, resentful of colonialism and hungry for new ideas.

That was the world Laurens Seelye stepped into on the AUB campus that fall. As he wrote in a letter dated January 1920, during a visit of Prince Faisal to Beirut, crowds waved banners “No Life Without Independence” and “Syria for the Syrians.” Against this backdrop of growing demands for independence from European colonial powers, he was tasked with teaching ethics, philosophy and sociology to students of many faiths and identities, not only from Lebanon, but throughout the region. One student, Edward Lipshcitz, hailed from Haifa. Another, Ahmad Shakir, was an Egyptian whose wife also attended AUB and was the first Egyptian woman to attend a co-educational institution.

Laurens pressed his mottos “think for yourself” and “be original” on this diverse student body, which responded well to his eccentric behaviors and ideas. Inspired by his own studies in theology and philosophy, Laurens taught Aristotle, Descartes and Kant and lectured on ideas as novel for Beirut in the 1920s as transcendentalism, Platonic realism and cosmolgy. In a quiz on Kant in his History of Philosophy class on April 15, 1924, Laurens’ questions included, “How would you explain Kant’s idea of “space” and “time” as “forms of thought”? And “how does Kant’s view of noumena compare with that of Locke and Hume”

As daunting as the quizzes sounded, Laurens was apparently well-liked as attested below by an AUB student, Edward Jurji, in an article written in 1927 for the Students Union Gazette.

“Professor Seelye”

“It is only consistent with the general spirit and principles of this institution that we should be granted the privilige and opportunity to discuss topics of varying nature, where full liberty can be enjoyed and absolute safety guaranteed.

Otherwise it would never have occured to a member of this student body to discuss on the pages of as popular a gazette as the Students’ Union’s a personality of as great a popularity and high a reputation as that of our beloved Professor Laurens H. Seelye.

Professor Seelye ever since I came to know him has made his impression upon my mind. He struck me first as a queer and stately well-dressed slick skeleton, then as an orator of unusual impressiveness and non-ending resourcefulness and finally as a bright chap – whose brain cells consisted of a bundle of electric wires carrying messages of an immensely crowded nature over a wide range of territory in a marvellously quick fashion.

To describe his charming style of talking would surely fail as an attempt. More noteworthy are the facts that he starts, when you expect him to end, is silent where you are patiently dying to hear him utter a word, and shoots forth where you are looking forward to a full stop. He begins a story telling you about the consequences and draws his speech to an end with a preroration.

Nonetheless amusing are his self-adaptations to life in general. In summer he prefers to walk up the mountain side dressed in his thin cloth and sweating like anything. In cold weather he chooses to take walks up the hills heroically feeding his weariness and masterfully drawing consolation from his self-made supply of fun. But on the other hand he never entertains the slightest thought of coming from his house to the University unless well seated in his beautiful Chevrolet.

Well, the casual observer might very reasonably conclude that the professor has to seek the help of his car to save himself the trouble of carrying that heavy bag that is always in his hand. The truth is that Professor Seelye rarely appears on the campus except a bag handing from his hand – weighin more than the ordinary schoolboy satchel. This you or anyone else might think is full of corrected papers, correspondence if not kinematic films to be shown in West Hall on Saturday next. But nothing of the sort I assure you of a miscomprehension. The leather bag contains above all and dearest to the bearers heart a huge jar of well-rapped and bottled up and a substantial piece of bread. In a jar is an adequate supply of leban. This food the Professor carries with him every morning as early as he comes to the A.U.B. and by eleven o’clock he has drunk it to the leas.

The funniest remarks the Professor made last year I think was his quick reaction in the following dialogue: –

Professor : – I won’t have any paper not written in ink.
Student : – But sir, I have no fountainpen.
Prof : – Goodness! How often have I to tell you to bring one along? Where is your darn’d pen?
Stud. : – Well I lost it.
Prof. : – Buy another.
Stud. : – Sir, but I can’t afford [one].
Prof. : – Then steal one.

The Professor has quite a number of paradoxial characteristics. Out and out he is the faculty champion of free thought and liberty. Not withstanding, he lays so much emphasis on closely sencoring every single film that comes to West Hall. He abhors the idea of seeing a lady fashionably dressed. On one occasion the West Hall clerk hung up some modestly bare bodied advertisement belonging to a coming entertainment, but when the director came down went the pictures and into the waste basket being torn into pieces by the hands of the open broadminded Boss.

The speed Professor Seelye sens out his words is only surpassed by the number of them that run out at the same time. Multitudes, nay, huge armies of wellequipped soldiers he hurls at the subject under treatment.

His kindness to animals is so frantically great, that he has ceased to extend the same measure of it to human beings. The other day he was walking down the street in Beirut and beheld a certain ignorant multireer fiercely whipping his animal. It was no waitings before the kind-hearted kindness-to-animals-teacher got hold of the supposed criminal shook him severely then gave him such a forceful kick that shot him right onto his face upon the ground!! This is practically speaking a phase of applied Ethics of preferably routine morality as our dear professor knows them.

Notwithstanding those above mentioned points, there still remains a white-as-snow-side to our hero. He really more than compensates for all of these outrages by the frequent early dismissals that he grants the classes and by the only two recurrent latenesses that he conferred on the students in the seminar while he is drinking his leban, to say nothing about his astounding jokes such as: The Behamdoon University farce, or the originality put into many a sermon and speech.”


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