Professor Emerita Gerda Seaman, who taught English for 27 years, passed away November 6. She was 87.
Born in 1931, in Allenstein, Germany, she grew up in Australia after moving there with her family in 1937. She completed a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in English literature from the University of Melbourne, and then worked as a social worker and taught as a volunteer English teacher. While in Melbourne, she met Donald Seaman, an agronomy graduate student and visiting Fulbright scholar, and after marrying in 1955, they enjoyed a meandering voyage across Europe to reach their new home in the United States.
Seaman completed her PhD in English literature at University of California, Davis, and was hired at Chico State University in 1969 as an assistant professor. She gradually worked her way to associate and full professor, and later served as department vice chair.
In her decades of teaching, Seaman enjoyed companionship and collaboration with her colleagues in scholarship and union organizing. A dedicated supporter of feminist and literacy activism at the University and in the greater community, she was an early advocate for the inclusion of women in the literary curriculum and taught women’s literature as soon as it became available in topics of her interest and specialization. Her work with Professor Emerita Ellen Walker on the writing of Eudora Welty was especially meaningful and a great pleasure for her.
Walker shares that Seaman became her first friend when she moved to Chico from the East Coast and shepherded her through the intricacies of the CSU and the politics of the English department.
“Gerda Seaman was a passionate teacher, a great and fast reader who shared her love of books with students and friends alike,” Walker said. “She regularly welcomed and guided new women faculty in what was then a decidedly man’s world.”
Professor Emerita Carol Burr also met Seaman upon her own arrival in Chico in 1970 and said she was a friend and a mentor from the beginning. Burr describes her as widely read, intellectually and culturally passionate, and fiercely honest. Demanding effort and rewarding performance, Seaman cared deeply about her students. Many contacted her as alumni to say how much her teaching meant to them, and others remained lasting friends.
Throughout her life, Seaman was steadfast in her support for human rights, and in recent years she became especially ardent about immigrant rights. She was a member of the local Amnesty International group, and was outspoken in opposition to the US wars in Vietnam, Central America, the first Gulf War, and all US wars following 9/11. She wrote articles for The University Journal, a publication of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and cogent, sometimes fiery letters to the editor of The Chico Enterprise-Record and The Chico News & Review.
“Gerda’s family escaped Germany as the holocaust was deepening, first to Australia and then the US, so she knew how bad things could get if the best were silent while the worst were fully voiced,” Burr said. “She fought for fairness and justice in every situation, sometimes with a sharp wit that could cut through any weak argument or moral laziness. Gerda was a force.”
As an active member of the former CSU faculty union United Professors of California, she often hosted its annual parties, “which were famous for their good cheer and for her private recipe, subtly dangerous punch,” Walker said, also noting that “she had an infectious giggle.”
Seaman entered the Faculty Early Retirement Program in 1991 and completed her service to the University in 1997. She maintained her Australian citizenship, and in retirement, she loved to travel throughout Europe and Australia, took Italian classes in Italy, and continued advocating for causes close to her heart.
She is survived by her three children, Gerald, William, and Catherine; three grandchildren, Joel, Jake, and Hanna; and by three great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, her family shares that contributions to Partners in Health, Doctors Without Borders, or the National Immigration Law Center would honor her memory.
A memorial will be held at Seaman’s home from 2-6 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, with a sharing of memories at 3 p.m. For more information, please contact her son, William, at 503-888-7455.
The University flag will be lowered Thursday, December 5, in her honor.