It was a somber scene in Battell Chapel when family, friends, colleagues and students of the late Samuel See gathered Saturday to pay tribute to the 34-year-old Yale assistant professor who died unexpectedly last November.
But through song, readings and personal anecdotes, those closest to See looked past the tragedy of his death to memorialize the life he led: as a scholar, a teacher and a deeply understanding and devoted friend.
“I am the most proud mother in the whole world,” See’s mother, Ann Sturdivant, told more than 100 people gathered to celebrate her son’s life. “Rather than grieve our loss, we elicit wonder — wonder at what our lives would be like if Sam had not lived.”
See’s mother described his “innate brilliance, charm and humor,” recalling See’s childhood in Bakersfield, California. As a preschooler, she said, See told classmates his curly, blonde hair came from eating angel food cake. He wanted to find a way to take the rainbow to school. Her son’s enthusiasm and curiosity were matched only by his “generosity of love,” she said. His intellect, she added, made him every teacher’s favorite, whether or not he was in that teacher’s class.
“Some essence of Sam lives in each of us,” she concluded. “His journey as a mortal man has ended, and now his legacy begins … Our love for you, Sammy, is eternal. God speed, Sam.”
English Department Chair Langdon Hammer ’80 GRD ’89 opened Saturday’s memorial, relating how news of See’s death had shocked the department and the University community.
See, who was on unpaid leave from the English department last fall, was found dead in a New Haven jail cell on Nov. 24, roughly 10 hours after he was detained following a domestic dispute with his husband, Sunder Ganglani, who attended but did not speak at the ceremony. In early January, a toxicology report deemed See’s cause of death a methamphetamine-induced heart attack.
“[See’s death] stirred feelings and questions that have hardly begun to settle,” Hammer said.
See’s colleagues and friends eulogized him in stories and reflections, sharing selections from his favorite books, including the novel Nightwood. See combined intellectual intensity and profundity with deep compassion for those around him, they said, taking most joy in the good fortune of his friends. The ceremony was also interspersed with music See had loved — from Frédéric Chopin to Peggy Lee.
Merve Emre GRD ’15 and Slavic Language and Literature professor Molly Brunson described See’s quest for community — his effort to “be present in a lonely world,” as Emre said.
Others remarked on See’s sense of humor and keen insight into the mechanics of human interaction. English professor Janice Carlisle said See revolutionized the way she signed off on her emails. Unacceptable to See, she said, was the valediction “best,” which seemed to “inflate the writer” he said in one tongue-in-cheek email exchange between the two.
“I have never closed an email since without thinking of Sam,” she concluded.
Sam’s meticulousness extended to his teaching and professional work, Carlisle added, saying he never took anything for granted, Carlisle added. The task of preparing a graduate seminar, perfunctory to some, inspired See to consider “what, how and why we teach.”
History and American Studies professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89 read excerpts from course evaluations. A student in one of See’s seminars praised him as the most “gracious, effusive and sincere professor at Yale.”
After completing his Ph.D at the University of California, Los Angeles, See joined the Yale faculty in 2009 — a step Sturdivant said that See considered his “ultimate success.” He studied as an undergraduate at both Amherst College and California State University, Bakersfield.
Samantha Pinto, See’s friend in graduate school at UCLA, remarked on the intensity See brought both to his academic work and to his personal relationships. He was aggrieved by the death of his cat, Thomas, whom See considered a member of his family. She said he felt all emotions “acutely and deeply,” which was often hard for him. She said she frequently wished for ease in his life.
“I did not deserve this time I had with him,” Pinto said.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller and University Provost Benjamin Polak both attended the service, which lasted nearly 2 hours.
See is survived by his husband, his mother, his two brothers, Jon Bloom and Darin See, and his sister, Kelly Flanagan.