A Portrait of the Professor as a Young Man: Milton Reigelman

Photo Credit: Central Kentucky News

BY BRENNEN AMONETT – STAFF WRITER

I believe a privilege of attending a small liberal arts school in central Kentucky is the community built by Centre’s presence in Danville. It’s safe to say that the names of Centre legends don’t retire with them, and that a school of 1,400 students can feel the impact of a leading figure for years after they’ve left Centre. Dr. Milton Reigelman is sure to be a name to remember and thank long after his upcoming retirement in June. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Reigelman, an institution on campus, to discuss his retirement; what years at Centre has been, and what comes afterwards.

“Would you like some tea? I hope you don’t mind if I have some.” Dr. Reigelman flipped on his electric kettle and sat across the thin coffee table adorned with the geometric sculpture of a prowling panther. On one wall in his office hung a large painting of Big Ben and two Ken Keffer cityscapes. There were three copies of Moby Dick on his bookshelf, a book he considers “the greatest work of art ever to come out of America.” Dozens of pictures of students occupied a bulletin board above his desk, photographs spanning decades all over the globe.

“I’m going to sit close because I don’t have my hearing aid.” He reclined into a large chair diagonal to my position across the table and set down a mug in front of me. I came to conduct the interview, but almost immediately, I was the interviewee.

He wanted to know about my own experience: where I am from, what my interests are, where I will be studying abroad. For the first ten minutes or so, our conversation had been entirely about me. It didn’t take me long to understand why Dr. Reigelman, a man who is clearly invested in truly knowing his students, would spend over four decades at a school like Centre, a college that places an emphasis on developing personal relationships between students and professors.

In regards to his lengthy tenure, 46 years is a significant portion of one’s life to devote to any one thing. “It’s certainly a feat,” I remarked. “Yes, but so is robbing a bank,” he replied.

Dr. Reigelman holds the title of being at Centre longer than anyone else on campus today, although he admits, “it might be good or it might be bad, it’s unclear.” Yet from the impact he’s had in so many departments across campus throughout his time at Centre, it’s hard to make the case that his lasting impact will be anything other than positive.

At varying points in his career, Milton Reigelman has been in charge of the Norton Center, admissions, financial aid, the alumni house, development, student life, a member of the English faculty, and acting president before President John Roush’s arrival in 1998. “One regret,” he joked, is that “they’ve never let me coach. I think I would be a good basketball coach.” He gave me a list of credentials, including a biking course he taught with another Centre legend, Kitty Baird, then asked, “would you put in a recommendation for me?”

When I touched on his use of the word “regret,” he very quickly made clear there was nothing more he could have expected from Centre. “Centre has been exceedingly patient with me and generous toward me. It didn’t take long after we arrived to realize this was the place we wanted to stay.” Originally from Washington, D.C. then moving to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Iowa City, Dr. Milton Reigelman had never lived in a small town until he arrived in Danville. “But this has fit very nicely. And it still does, we’re going to stay here.”

Considering the amount of travel Dr. Reigelman has done throughout his life, his decision to remain in Danville goes to show how influential the community has been on Milton, and his legacy proves how influential he has been on the community. After all, Dr. Reigelman is credited by many as a pioneer in Centre’s study abroad department, and a large reason Centre boasts its high national ranking today. Until the 1990s, the study abroad department consisted of an occasional Centre Term trip. Mike Adams, the Centre president at the time–who Reigelman considered “a little controversial, particularly towards the end”—wanted to get Centre students abroad. Centre is a small school in small town in a small inland state, and he saw the need for expansion. Thus the London program was created, then Strasbourg, Merida, China, Japan, and so on. Today, Centre is proud to have 10 semester abroad programs and multiple Centre Term trips every year.

According to Reigelman, the fact that over 80% of Centre students study abroad gives the campus “a different culture.” The expansion of the study abroad department and the welcoming of international students (a focus on “import and export,” as Reigelman calls it) have been two of the biggest changes on Centre’s campus over the last half-decade. Dr. Reigelman sums this up by saying, “the student body doesn’t look like it did, doesn’t think like it did.”

“In a way we really coddle our students,” he added, “someone else is paying for much of what you do here. You don’t have to worry about buying food, budgeting, you never have to cook a meal, you never have to cook a dish, you never have to mow a strip of grass. Really, it’s unbelievable. Suddenly [when you study abroad] you live with other people, often people you don’t know, you’re going to be given a food stipend, you’re going to learn how to shop and what healthy eating is, you’re going to learn to cook, to share, you’re going to learn the division of labor—you can learn that in an anthropology course, but no, you’re going to do it! Talk about high impact learning.”

“High impact learning” seems to be the focus of how Reigelman’s sector of Old Carnegie treats the idea of studying abroad. Centre’s impact on a global scale isn’t “new” per se, it has had an impact across the world since the 19th century, but Reigelman has helped to institutionalize the college’s international focus. Although he humbly refused to accept my praises for his leadership over the Center for Global Citizenship—when asked how it has impacted the mission of the college, he simply responded, “well, I can’t say it’s me”–Reigelman’s personal focus on changing students comes out in any conversation on the subject. He prides himself on his ability (“though I’m not sure it can be proven,” he remarked) to be able to tell the difference between students who have and who haven’t studied abroad. “There’s a sense of maturity and confidence,” he continued, “both intellectually and personally.”

Beyond building Centre’s study abroad department to national prestige, Reigelman has influenced not only the college, but students around the globe, for years. Speaking to his own “intercultural experience,” Dr. Reigelman taught American Literature behind the Iron Curtain in 1979 – 80 as a Fulbright lecturer. Teaching in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine, he witnessed the Cold War from a perspective not many Americans had the opportunity to experience.  As an American, he was loved by the Polish but constantly under Soviet surveillance. Put simply, he considered it “mind boggling.” He explained, “it gave me a belief in you cannot understand where you are unless you have something to compare it with. It calls into question the assumptions one makes about everything.”

When asked about his time as acting president, he confessed, “in some ways, it was the easiest year I had at Centre. I was basically not trying to sink the ship-or if I sunk it at least not let them know I was on the ship when it sank.” In a display of his colonel pride, he then pulled up his pant leg to show off his pair of gold checkered socks with the Centre logo on them.

Countless other tales, such as marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing his I Have a Dream speech, or eating breakfast with Prince Charles graced our conversation. His ability to recount such momentous anecdotes should serve as a testimony to a career well served. Sharing poetry and playscripts ensures a commitment to propagation with a personal touch.

An aficionado of literature, drama, music, and Cowan dining, Milton Reigelman embodies the essence of a liberal arts education. A true lover of knowledge, he has spent his years at Centre working to expand Centre’s reach abroad and bring bits of the globe back to Danville in the name of global citizenship. Through this effort, he has had the pleasure of impacting the lives of young men and women for nearly half a decade. “One of the highlights,” he told me, “this past weekend, seeing and talking with students, some of whom graduated a long time ago, and seeing what they’ve done with their lives.”

Dr. Reigelman’s devotion to the cultivation of the intellect will not go unappreciated after his retirement in June, and will certainly manifest itself in new endeavors. He plans to write a revisionist book on Moby Dick, whose thesis will be to “forget about that stupid whale and Ahab, it’s not about them,” and one day, he hopes his letters to Kate Middleton and Prince William will pay off by receiving a visit from them to Danville. He also wants to become a concert pianist (or at least learn to play some simple Chopin), and students will still be able to find Dr. Reigelman at Jane Barleycorn’s where he will soon begin his part-time bartending career.

Lastly, he requested I include a pitch for his newfound interest in becoming Centre’s next basketball coach. In his own words, it reads as follows: “Heretofore secretly, he is plotting. He loves and respects Greg Mason as a person and a coach, but he does covet the job. And should Greg choose to retire—because, after all, he’s getting on—he would apply and is gathering support.”


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