CARBONDALE -- Albert Somit, former President of SIU Carbondale, was born in Chicago, Illinois on Oct. 25, 1919, son of Mary Rosenblum Somit and Sam Somit. He died on Aug. 2, 2020, at 100 years of age.
Mary and Sam were both immigrants from villages near the Poland-Russia border. Sam died when Al was four years old. Al and his mother lived in Omaha, Nebraska; Detroit, Michigan; and Council Bluffs, Iowa; before returning to Chicago for Al's high school years. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, then earned his AB degree in History and Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He spent 1942-1943 in Needles, California, helping train GIs for possible desert combat. He returned to the University of Chicago where he continued his education in Political Science. He became fascinated with biology and its influence on human growth and behavior, especially political behavior. This interest became a recurring theme throughout his academic career. He completed his doctorate in 1947, while already teaching in the Department of Government (currently Department of Politics) at New York University (NYU). He remained close to his alma mater throughout his life, the last 15 years as a member of the University of Chicago Library Council. He memorialized his parents through an endowment that underwrites a summer internship program in the Library's Department of Preservation and Conservation.
From July 1951 to January 1953, Somit again served in the Army, this time in Military Intelligence in Germany. He occasionally told of a clandestine assignment in the Russian Sector of Berlin. He traveled in civilian clothes, in a beat-up old VW, knowing the Army would not claim him if he were caught. After all these years, he was still marveling that he had managed to return unscathed-and apparently undetected. After that deployment, he returned to NYU where he taught and served in a variety of administrative positions until 1966. He took a one-year leave when offered a visiting position at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he held the Chester W. Nimitz Chair of Social and Political Philosophy during the 1961-1962 academic year. In 1966, he moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) as Chair of Political Science. He moved up through the ranks to Executive Vice President (1970-1980), serving as Acting President for a year (1976-1977), and then as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies (1978-1979).
In 1980, he was - according to SIU's website - lured away from UB and named the 14th chief executive of Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). Somit provided stability and growth, following student protests in the early 1970s and a decade of revolving doors in the President's office. Highlights of his presidency included strengthening the university's research capacity and its young School of Medicine, just 10 years old when he arrived. He guided a university that maintained record enrollments and high percentages of both international and minority students who provided rich cultural diversity, creativity, and optimism. Somit strengthened faculty teaching and graduate research. Library holdings increased in both quality and quantity. During Somit's tenure, SIU provided educational programs on several military bases in the U.S. and around the world. President Somit was also actively involved in collaborative educational programs that SIUC sponsored in more than 20 countries. In 1987, Dr. Somit retired from administration. The SIU Board of Trustees named him Distinguished Service Professor, only the second leader to be so honored (Hiram Lesar, a friend and mentor, was the first). A true scholar, Somit remained active in his faculty role - teaching, conducting research and writing - on campus until he fully retired from SIU in 1992. He retained his emeritus status with SIUC, even as he continued his professional activities and scholarly work in California.
His greatest academic achievement was serving as a founder of the interdisciplinary movement to link biology with political behavior known as biopolitics. In 1972, his review of the first 10 years of biopolitics appeared in the "British Journal of Political Science." In 1986, Al Somit edited one of the first volumes outlining the variety of approaches to this area of research - "Biology and Politics" - which was based on an international conference in Paris that he had organized. He finished a 50-year retrospective of biopolitics, his final manuscript, shortly before his death. It was presented by his co-author, Steven Peterson at the American Political Science Association's annual (virtual) conference in September 2020.
As a teacher, Dr. Somit was always accessible. He was compared to Socrates by more than one of his former students, for "pummeling them with questions." He was generous with his time for students, as well as young faculty, staff and administrators.
He enjoyed two lifelong hobbies - playing classical music on the oboe and English horn through his 80s, and playing tennis, which kept him physically active from high school through his one hundredth year. He believed in the power of philanthropy and, with his wife Lyn, established several endowments at four institutions of higher education, including SIUC. To date, more than 150 young people - most of them immigrants, children of immigrants or first-generation college students - have benefited from their generosity. For anyone so moved, Al's family would be happy to see memorial gifts added to the Somit Honors Program Scholarship Endowment at the SIU Foundation ([email protected]).
He was preceded in death by his first wife, Leyla. He is survived by his wife, Lyn Corder, who was holding his hand when he died; and by his sons, Scott Somit (wife, Carol Hanak Somit), and Jed Somit (wife, Toni Maines); five grandchildren, Micah Somit (wife, Jennifer Somit), Max Somit, Hal Somit (wife, Brittany Faria Somit), Jacob Somit, (wife, Elisa Fischer), and Julia Somit; and two great-grandchildren by Hal and Brittany, Kennedy and Jaxson Somit. He is greatly missed by his stepchildren, Ryan Muldoon (wife, Michelle Frain Muldoon), Cory Muldoon (wife, Laura Mullkoff), Maureen Muldoon (husband, Scott Lothes), and twin grandsons, by Ryan and Michelle, Aidan and Gabriel Muldoon, and two grandsons, by Cory and Laura, Bayard and Eugene Mullkoff. He is also missed by close friends Judy Ashby and Hugh Muldoon, co-author Steven Peterson, and Nora Post to whom he was married in the late 1970s through early 1980s and who remained a true friend throughout his life.