Sunday, January 23, 2000

Popular UC professor dies

Jean-Charles Seigneuret shared his love of French literature, life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jean-Charles Seigneuret's earliest memory was of huddling under a table in Normandy, France, in the dark, early days of World War II, praying with family members as bombs fell around them.

        In later years, he recalled, he would bicycle around postwar Paris, negotiating the best prices he could for potatoes, that night's dinner, “because my mother would let me keep the change.”

        At age 16, he sailed off alone for Canada to make a new life, arriving in April 1953.

        Dr. Seigneuret, 62, a University of Cincinnati professor emeritus, died in his sleep Wednesday in Hollywood, Fla., where he was vacationing.

        The popular French teacher was the former head of UC's Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, which he joined in 1982. He came to Cincinnati from Pullman, Wash., where he had been chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Washington State University.

        “There was nothing he wouldn't do for any of his children or grandchildren,” said his daughter, Helene Hopkins of Palouse, Wash. “No matter how bad anything had ever gotten in our lives, my papa always had faith that we would find the right path in life and become very successful and at peace with ourselves. He will be terribly missed.”

        A respected scholar of medieval literature, Dr. Seigneuret was an expert in reading manuscripts from the Middle Ages, colleagues said. He produced several books, including the Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs, a staple in research libraries worldwide.

        Dr. Seigneuret is perhaps best known for his lively, entertaining teaching style. Flying chalk often followed a grammatical error in his classroom. Former students praise his ability to instill in them his love of French language and literature.

        Michele Vialet, a UC professor of French, said of Dr. Seigneuret, “Two qualities have impressed me over the years: his enthusiasm and ability to ... make things happen, and his incredible intellectual and personal generosity.”

        Ever the ambassador of French language and culture, Dr. Seigneuret collected French movies, news reports and music for his students. He also managed the online French language forum on CompuServe.

        He won numerous awards and honors, including Western Washington University's outstanding teacher award in 1966, and the Pro-Lingua Award for his contribution to intercultural understanding in 1976. Also in 1976, the French government awarded him the prestigious rank of knight in the Order of the Academic Palms.

        Dr. Seigneuret was most proud of a slender book of poems, Dans la nuit des ondes, published in Paris in 1996.

        “His poetry reveals a constant dialogue he entertains with the values of fairness, morality and charity,” Dr. Vialet said. “This is a quiet, never advertised side of Jean-Charles that very few have been aware of.”

        A side that many were aware of was his skill in the kitchen. A historian of French gastronomy, Dr. Seigneuret created multicourse feasts that rivaled those of a five-star French restaurant, friends said. Chinese food was a second specialty.

        A former student, and later colleague, of Dr. Seigneuret's, professor David P. Benseler of Case Western Reserve University, said, “I will remember him best for his personal warmth, his zest for life and his appreciation of it in all its forms ... his truly remarkable love of teaching, and his absolutely remarkable abilities as a French gourmet chef.”

        Said Bill Crawford of Snohomish, Wash., “Never have I met someone who felt things so deeply. His generosity and compassion were more than most could comprehend. He did everything with unbridled passion, as a poet, teacher and friend.”

        Born in Lisieux, France, in 1937, Dr. Seigneuret grew up in northern France and Paris. After emigrating, he completed his high school studies in Montreal, then spent a year as a waiter in a nightclub (which, he often said, was where he acquired his sometimes salty form of English).

        He then journeyed to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he eventually was joined by his mother, Madeleine Demers, and his brother, Jacques.

        In 1958, he received a bachelor's degree from the University of British Columbia. He later completed a master's and Ph.D. in French literature at the University of California at Los Angeles.

        Dr. Seigneuret was president of Alliance Francaise, a Cincinnati cultural club, from 1996-98, and has served as interpreter on numerous occasions during visits of distinguished French visitors.

        A resident of Wyoming, he was an avid Reds fan and a Bengals season-ticket holder who sat until the final gun of every home game, rain or shine, win or lose.

        In addition to his mother and daughter Helene, Dr. Seigneuret is survived by two other children, Madeleine Felsted of Jackson, Texas, and Bernard Seigneuret of Kirkland, Wash.; and seven grandchildren.

        Services and burial will be Saturday in Palouse, Wash. A Cincinnati memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Feb. 2 at Cedars of Lebanon at Spring Grove Cemetery. A reception will follow.

        Memorials can be sent to the March of Dimes or the American Heart Association.


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