Herman L. Sinaiko, longtime College professor and Plato scholar, 1929-2011

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Update: A memorial service for Herman L. Sinaiko will take place Friday, Nov. 18 at 4 p.m. in Bond Chapel. Seating will begin at 3:30. Those who cannot attend the service may view it on cTV or at the UChicago Live page on Facebook.

Herman L. Sinaiko, a beloved teacher in the College and a scholar of Plato, died Sunday, Oct. 2 in Hyde Park after battling lung cancer. He was 82.

Sinaiko, who taught in the College for 57 years and served as dean of students in the College from 1982 to 1986, was known to generations of undergraduates as a thoughtful, rigorous and devoted teacher. He was also a passionate advocate for UChicago students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“Herman Sinaiko was an enormously brilliant teacher who enriched and transformed the lives of the thousands of undergraduates whom he taught at Chicago,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “He leaves a powerful legacy of service to the University and the College.”

Sinaiko’s deep ties to the University were established during his years as an undergraduate living in Burton-Judson Courts. A proud “Hutchins baby,” Sinaiko entered the College in 1945 at the age of 16 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1947.

He began teaching in the College in 1954, and in 1961, he received his PhD from the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on Social Thought. His dissertation was the basis for his first book, Love, Knowledge and Discourse in Plato: Dialogue and Dialectic in the Phaedrus, Republic and Parmenides (1965).

Deep commitment to undergraduates

Although his scholarly work on Plato was widely respected, it was through his work with students that Sinaiko made his greatest mark.

Throughout his career, Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities, remained devoted to teaching in the College, particularly in the Core. His enthusiasm in the classroom earned him the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Undergraduate Teaching in 1963, the Amoco Award in 1994 and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award in 2003.

In recent years, Sinaiko’s passion for exposing undergraduates to the liberal arts led him to develop the University of Chicago Great Books Institute, an effort aimed at enriching education in community colleges, particularly for minority and first-generation students. Sinaiko hoped that giving students access to the materials and pedagogical methods used in the Core would provide them with the tools to succeed at a four-year institution.

Sinaiko’s friend and colleague James Redfield remembered him as “a College person, and there aren’t so many of those. His real home was the College, and his real work was undergraduate teaching,” said Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College.

Sinaiko, who taught “Greek Thought & Literature“ and “Human Being & Citizen,” among other courses, tried not to advocate a particular school of literary interpretation in the classroom. “[I]n the Core, I want students to develop such skills as tact, subtlety and sophistication, so that if a student chooses to be a Marxist at least she or he will be a smart Marxist,” Sinaiko told the University of Chicago Chronicle in 1994.

Sinaiko’s love of working with students was obvious, according to his colleagues. “There was a real joy in Herman when it came to sitting in a room with kids and trying to figure important things out,” said Ted O’Neill, lecturer in the Humanities Collegiate Division, who co-taught “Human Being & Citizen” with Sinaiko.

Sinaiko’s concern for his students went beyond the classroom. “He cared very much about the whole student—not just the student as a little intellect, but the person that contains the intellect,” said Susan Art, dean of students in the College.

A champion of students and the arts

Sinaiko championed numerous student causes in his years at UChicago. As dean of students, he worked to improve mental health care for students. Over the years, he also supported efforts to improve residential life facilities and was a strong supporter of student endeavors in the arts.  

He was particularly instrumental in expanding University Theater. Early in his tenure as dean, with student involvement in theater flagging, Sinaiko helped to establish a student-run University Theater Committee. Thanks to leadership from Sinaiko, Francis X. Kinahan, Steve Schoer and others, participation in UT soared.

Bill Michel served as director of UT while Sinaiko was the organization’s faculty director. “He would often call me because a group of students had come to him with an idea,” remembered Michel, now the executive director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

“No matter how off the wall, he would want to help make it happen. From the students who created Fire Escape Films while sitting on the fire escape outside his office in Gates-Blake, to the hundreds of students who enjoyed countless UT picnics in his backyard (I always wondered if it was a coincidence that the sets of David Auburn’s Proof looked like Herman’s house), it’s fair to say that Herman was one of the great supporters of student arts at the University.”

Sinaiko’s efforts on behalf of students gained him an enthusiastic following that even caught the attention of Esquire magazine. The September 1966 issue named him among the nation’s “super-profs,” and included a cartoon of a cape-adorned Sinaiko.

It wasn’t the only exuberant tribute Sinaiko would receive. In 2005, several students in his Greek Thought & Literature course started a Facebook group called “Herman Sinaiko is a Rock Star” and made T-shirts bearing the slogan. Sinaiko later modeled his shirt for the University of Chicago Magazine.

Anne Heminger, AB’08, was one of the members of the Facebook group, and is also a third-generation Sinaiko student (both her mother and step-grandmother studied with him). She was amazed that someone so distinguished still wanted to teach undergraduates. “I think that sums up his educational philosophy quite well—he always believed his undergraduates were as capable as anyone else at grasping the complexities of the texts we studied,” she said. “It was an amazing class to be a part of.”

Sinaiko’s son Jesse remembers how ardently students admired his father. “I’d wander over to his office after school. There were always students lined up outside his office door to talk to him. He was really proud of the fact he was considered a great teacher, and he was.”

Teaching impacts thousands

Colleagues and friends remember Sinaiko for his compassion, intellectualism—and his trademark turtlenecks, a style he adopted in the mid-1960s to avoid wearing ties.

“When he was dean of students, he was assailed by one of the conservative magazines of the time for wearing turtlenecks. As far as they were concerned, this was both hilarious and a terrible breach of decorum,” recalled O’Neill. “He suffered for his turtlenecks.”

That good-natured irreverence was typical of Sinaiko, according to his friends and colleagues. “He was witty, but always in a benevolent way,” said Art.

“He was fun to be around, and he was a good listener,” agreed Redfield. “He was somebody who was always there when you needed him.”

Sinaiko’s lasting impact is clear, said O’Neill. “There are thousands of students who were changed by Herman’s teaching. That’s a legacy that will continue in people’s lives.”

“He was completely devoted to teaching, to the College, to the Core, to everything we stand for here,” said Art.

Sinaiko is survived by his wife Susan Fisher and their children Benjamin and Jane; three children from his first marriage, Jesse, Eve and David; and four grandchildren, Eli, Maia, Asher and Zachary.

A fund to support undergraduate research has been established in Sinaiko’s honor. Donations to the Herman Sinaiko Research Fellowship Fund may be sent to the Office of the College Dean at 1116 E. 59th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

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