Fordham University Remembers Dr. Stephen Freedman


Fordham University

The memorial service for Dr. Stephen Freedman was held in the University Church with colleagues, freinds, and family. (Courtesy of Fordham News and Media Relations Bureau)

By Madison Hennessy

The memorial service for Dr. Stephen Freedman was held in the University Church with colleagues, friends, and family. (Courtesy of Fordham News and Media Relations Bureau)

The university community gathered on Thursday to celebrate the life of former provost Stephen Freedman, Ph.D. Freedman, who died suddenly at the age of 68 this past summer, was honored in a public memorial service at the University Church where colleagues, friends and family commemorated Freedman’s compassion and hard work in a series of speeches.

The service opened with a choral rendition of “To Everything There Is a Season.” In accordance with Freedman’s faith, the proceedings were conducted in the Jewish tradition, and led by his longtime rabbi and friend, Eleanor Smith, Ph.D.

Smith compared Freedman to a geode, saying he was an unassuming thing of nature whose splendor became more evident when you looked inside. She also praised his intellect, his commitment to faith and his remarkable dedication to others. She spoke highly of the guidance he showed her, especially in the pursuit of her medical degree, noting his knack for helping friends and colleagues like it was his job.

Following Smith were remarks from Eva Badowska, Ph.D., Dean of Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Badowska spoke of Freedman’s role as a her mentor. She noted his talent for being fully present in life, for lending all of his attention to whomever he conversed with, and for displaying deep and genuine interest in the lives of others.

“He really wanted to know,” she said. “I felt that I fully existed for him, that I was fully seen.”

Badowska, along with several other attendees, wore a pink plastic lei along with her formal academic robes. She recounted an instance wherein Freedman wore a similar one to a formal academic event on the Keating steps. Puzzled, she had inquired about the rather strange wardrobe choice, to which he replied, “This is to remind me that today is a happy day.”

John Pelissero, provost emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, spoke as well. Pelissero, a colleague and friend since the 1980s, spoke to Freedman’s passion for his work, whether that was as a professor of natural science (where it was rumored that his passion would occasionally lead him to jump up and down on the instructor’s desk), integrating science into liberal arts curricula using the available resources of Loyola Chicago to aid the local Bosnian refugee population or in supporting post-secondary education for adults (which he was convinced could become the next big thing).

Ellen Fahey-Smith, Fordham’s associate vice president from the Office of the Provost also spoke on similar themes. Although she said Freedman was never one for order— he could “take the simple and render it incredibly complex”— Fahey-Smith argued that such tendencies only added to the richness of his life. He possessed, as she put it, a remarkable “spiritual hunger,” paying close attention to every detail. Fahey Smith also noted his ability to break barriers in such capacities as being not only the first Jewish provost, but the first-ever provost of Fordham.

Eve Keller, Ph.D., president of the Fordham Faculty Senate, then led the Torah portion of the service, which consisted of an analysis and interpretation of text. The verse cited was Deuteronomy 30:19.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life—so that you may live, you and your seed,” read the verse.

Although the passage is sometimes interpreted as a message of the necessity of obedience, Keller said that, at its most fundamental, it was really about choosing life – something she said Freedman did unfailingly. She emphasized his endless energy, his capacity to make the most out of every minute and his knack for always trying to do more, all while exuding seemingly boundless joy.

Jonathan Crystal, Ph.D., who had worked under Freedman and is now interim provost at Fordham, spoke on Freedman’s deeply impactful role as his mentor. He shared what he called the most memorable advice he had received from Freedman: don’t wait to be invited to things, just show up.

Crystal said that his empathy, concern, ability to connect with others and unapologetic authenticity were all deeply inspiring. As a testament to Freedman’s uniqueness, he noted, in humor, that there probably were not many other people who ended performance reviews by hugging their bosses.

Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, spoke next and noted, with irreverence, the complex and varied ways in which Freedman could be described. McShane used descriptors like “U2 fan,” “hugger of anyone within hugging distance” and “unshakeable optimist,” among many others.

He also praised Freedman’s fearlessness, clarity of mind, resourcefulness, openness to other cultures and self-knowledge. Rather than calling on him to rest in peace, McShane ended with what he felt was a more fitting sentiment, a wish that he stay active and never be at rest.

“Because to be at rest, for Stephen Freedman, is an impossibility,” said McShane.

Zachary Freedman, Freedman’s son and an assistant professor at West Virginia University, then took the podium, where he spoke about Freedman’s incredible devotion as a father and a mentor. He said as the son of immigrants growing up in Canada, Freedman learned incredible work ethic, and remained firm in the belief that one could prove oneself simply by working harder.

Freedman said his father still managed to be a constant presence and role model in his sons’ lives, bringing his kids into work and “never missing a game.” He was unafraid of blunt honesty, once even remarking to Zachary after a college presentation “that wasn’t very good,” he was always willing to help his kids work to become the best people they could be.

“I feel lucky that I was born into this world with Stephen Freedman as my dad,” said Zachary.

Eileen Freedman then briefly joined her son at the podium, offering thanks to attendees and organizers.

The service ended with closing remarks and a final prayer from Rabbi Eleanor Smith.

“We live in a time when there is a hard drift towards the most narrow versions of our respective identities,” she said. But she said Freedman combated that with open-mindedness and empathy that, if adopted, would lead our way forward in grace.