Bedau remembered as voice against capital punishment
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 02:09
Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, Hugo Bedau, died Aug. 13 in Norwood, Mass., from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.
Bedau was recruited by Tufts in 1966 to chair the Department of Philosophy and remained a full-time faculty member until 1999.
After retiring at age 73, he returned periodically to teach courses on both the Medford/Somerville and Talloires, France campuses.
“He built a world-class philosophy department from scratch,” colleague and Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett said. “He got the department off to a great start and then turned it over to different colleagues who continued his traditions.”
As a founder of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Bedau is known as one of the world’s most prominent activists against capital punishment. He published many books and essays on the subject even after his retirement, including “The Death Penalty in America” (1st edition, 1964; 4th edition, 1997) and “The Courts, the Constitution and Capital Punishment” (1977).
He was also deeply interested in civil rights and served as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“He felt very strongly that [capital punishment] was an incorrect exercise of power by the government and that there were other ways to deal with those issues,” Constance Putnam, his wife, said. “I don’t think he ever turned down a debate to talk about the death penalty. He always made room in his schedule.”
Bedau knew he wanted to become a philosopher early on in his college career, according to Putnam.
“He considered himself very lucky,” she said. “That was what he wanted to do, and he did it. He loved teaching.”
In addition to publishing papers on capital punishment post-retirement in 2009, he worked with retired Fletcher Professor of English, Emeritus, Sylvan Barnet to create more editions of their co-authored critical thinking textbook, “Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings.”
“He really had a lot of dignity in his later years,” Stuart Green (LA ’83), former student of Bedau and professor at the Rutgers School of Law, said. “Even though there was a great burden with his illness, he lived his life the way he wanted to live his life.”
Bedau was respected tremendously by colleagues and students alike. He maintained close relationships with his students, helping many of them explore careers in philosophy.
Jim Hart (A ’68), former student of Bedau and current adjunct professor of philosophy at Bentley University, credited Bedau with steering him back into the philosophy field after Hart spent 20 years pursuing different careers post-graduation.
“He was the number-one intellectual influence on my life, for sure,” Hart said.
Jed Silverstein (LA ’04), another former student of Bedau and a high school philosophy teacher at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, said Bedau made a lasting impact on the way people think about the death penalty in America.
“I actually think that Hugo’s greatest contribution is modeling the influence that philosophers have on matters of great public importance,” he said. “I think regardless of where one stands on that issue, we owe a certain debt to whoever clarifies what otherwise was a mess.”
Gabriella Goldstein (LA ’84), administrative director of the Tufts European Center, recalled her relationship with Bedau as both a student and a colleague.
“He was so untouchable for me,” she said. “I was so intimidated but so in awe at the same time. It made this very big impression on me that in college, you would come into contact with people like him who knew so much.”
Many of his students remarked on his humility, kindness and dry wit.
“I discovered that this unimaginably brilliant and untouchable guy was the sweetest, nicest, kindest, warmest and most compassionate person,” Goldstein said. “For me, that was such a gift to see. We went from being a professor and a student to being in a collegiate relationship and a real friendship.”
Bedau lived in Concord, Mass. with Putnam, his wife of 22 years. He enjoyed swimming at Walden Pond, bike riding, gardening and watching sports, Putnam said.
A ceremony honoring Bedau will take place on Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. in Goddard Chapel.
Editor's Note: The location of Bedau's ceremony has been switched to Goddard Chapel.