Quirky obituary endears Connecticut professor to new audience

HARTFORD, Conn. — Robert Spiegel’s passion for Russian literature, the New York Mets, ethnic cooking and beagles endeared him to generations of students and colleagues at Central Connecticut State University. Now, through the power of social media, the 77-year-old former English professor’s obituary is charming strangers, as well.

Spiegel, a resident of the Hartford suburb of Berlin and a native of New York City, died Wednesday after a struggle with cardiac disease and dementia. He was eulogized in a quirky obituary written by his son that appeared Friday in central Connecticut newspapers.

It quickly started spreading on strangers’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, usually accompanied by the readers’ admissions they did not know him — but wished they had, based on the richly detailed obituary.

"Whereas the disease did thankfully erase most memories of the ’62 Mets season, it eventually also claimed his life," his obituary read, referring to his beloved team’s 40-120 record in a year that took 10 games just to get their first win.

Friends and family say the obituary and its response are a fitting coda for the life of a man who loved spurring conversation, whether it was about good writing, New York sports teams or the satisfaction of sipping a high-quality single malt Scotch whiskey.

"He was a very humble man, and reaching some level of postmortem fame would really please him. I’m sure he would have been delighted by it, and surprised," said Kevin Lynch, a fellow English professor emeritus at Central Connecticut who worked with Spiegel for 32 years.

Spiegel was a high school teacher in Brooklyn before joining Central Connecticut State’s faculty in 1965. He was accompanied on his move by his wife, Ursula, whom he’d met on a blind date under New York City’s Washington Square arch.

He quickly took on a reputation at Central Connecticut as a teacher who could leave a roomful of students entranced by anything from Dostoyevsky to the literature of baseball — something his obituary called "a thinly veiled therapy to alleviate the trauma he sustained from coaching arguably the worst Little League team in recorded (or unrecorded) history and from the sufferings he endured from 40 years as a devout Mets fan."

Such lines in his obituary were what caught the eye of many strangers Friday, some of whom pondered in Facebook postings whether Spiegel had written the death notice himself.

Though his family would have liked that, they said, the progress of his dementia made it impossible. Instead, it was written by his son, Jeff, who described himself in the obituary as someone "who, if nothing else to show from his lineage, inherited his father’s sardonic sense of humor."

The unusual obituary also gave readers a window into the effects of the dementia that first became evident when it stole Robert Spiegel’s ability to read, then continued creeping onward as caretakers helped his wife keep him in their home until his hospitalization late last week.

Spiegel’s obituary was so untraditional that family members and the funeral home traded calls back and forth Thursday as the directors wanted to double check that yes, indeed, the Spiegels wanted it to appear exactly that way.

"Robert Spiegel of Kensington was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 2, 1934, lived and subsequently died," the opening line reads. "Most of his noteworthy accomplishments happened in said middle part."

The obituary described the dayslong vigil at his hospital bed before his death amid what his son described as lively conversation against a backdrop of the music of Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley, "chicken curry and the occasional smuggled glass of Glenlivet."

And true to his love of Russian literature, the password for callers seeking information at the hospital about his condition was "Vanya," an ode to the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov — a detail his family is sure he would have loved.

As his dementia progressed in recent years, Spiegel sat down one day with his wife, and they wrote a list of things to remember for his eventual memorial service: their daughter should read some Emily Dickinson poetry aloud, the dress code should be strictly casual, and they should dab his favorite Drakkar Noir cologne on his body after the traditional washing under their Jewish faith.

When Ursula Spiegel got out that list again this week, she found a few words added on the back in her husband’s handwriting: "Glenlivet and spicy food."

That single malt Scotch whiskey, spicy food and other items that invoke Spiegel’s personality are expected to be part of a memorial service next spring at Central Connecticut State University. The date had not been set as of Friday, and his funeral services this week were private.

In addition to his wife and son, Spiegel is survived by a daughter, three grandchildren and several other family members. According to the obituary, he was also predeceased by his "bevy of beagles, all eternally loyal to their benevolent master, if not lacking a tad in their own intellect."

Ursula Spiegel said she and others in the family were surprised and pleased that her husband’s obituary had struck a chord with strangers, and that he was bringing a smile to them even after his death.

"Thank God Jeff has inherited his humor," she said. "He wrote it exactly the way Bob would have written it himself."

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