The upcoming Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies, featuring this year the renowned historian of American Jewry, Jonathan Sarna, will be missing something vital. This will be the first year — in over 30 years of lectures — that the lectures’ principal founding visionaries and financial benefactors — Sam and Althea Stroum — will not be among the living.
Sam, of course, was taken from us by cancer a decade ago. And this past March 14, after an extended period of ill health, Althea, too passed into the “World of Truth.” Together, Sam and Althea built a scaffolding of communal philanthropy that touched the lives of virtually every Seattleite in one way or another.
The mark they made on the University of Washington alone would inscribe their names in Seattle’s communal Book of Life. But in the smaller world of Jewish Seattle, there is no evading the pervasive influence of Sam and Althea Stroum.
Who among us, in search of meaningful Jewish fellowship, has not enjoyed the facilities, the broad programming, and the sociability afforded by the “J?” By now a generation of Seattle Jewry has followed the course of contemporary Jewish scholarship as documented in the Stroum Lecture series, one of the nation’s most prestigious Jewish Studies lectureships. And, for over a quarter century, Jewish and non-Jewish undergraduates at the “U” have been guided in the fields of academic Jewish learning by the remarkably committed and creative faculty of what was recently named the Samuel and Althea Stroum Jewish Studies Program.
It was a bad enough blow to lose Sam. But we all thought Althea would somehow be immune from time. Wasn’t she right there every spring for the Stroum Lectures, always resplendently turned out, the closest thing to a Jewish Queen we Seattleites have ever known? For those of us connected to the Jewish Studies program, the loss is particularly acute.
Some of us knew Althea well; others, like myself, were too intimidated by “royalty” to mumble more than an annual greeting at a lecture: “Mmm. Hi, Althea. Nice to see you!” And, of course, my role as Stroum Professor has for years included the happy task of submitting to Althea an annual report about how I’m spending her cash.
Other than that, I didn’t think that I mattered much to Althea. Why should I? That’s why I was shocked one morning last autumn when my office phone rang. The voice at the other end said, “Hi, Marty. I just wanted you to know that I’m reading your book on Jewish Radar! It really gives me a chuckle!”
“Thanks,” I replied. “But who’s this?”
After a loud laugh from the other end, I was informed: “Why, it’s Althea! Didn’t you recognize my voice after all these years?”
After I got my bearings, and overcame my embarrassment, we had a chatty little conversation that ended with resolutions to “keep in better touch.” I was, naturally, astonished. How could it happen that my little book was even a blip on the screen of one of Jewish America’s premier philanthropic personages? How had I not known how down-to-earth and friendly The Queen was? How much had I missed out by being shy and tongue-tied before a woman whose majestic bearing was outshone only by her simplicity?
But I guess that was what Althea Stroum was all about: A Queen Esther who never forgot her people and never lost touch with her roots. She and Sam lived large and small; large in their influence, small in affect and pretense. All of us will miss her dearly.
As for my colleagues and me in the Stroum Jewish Studies Program, the opening night of this year’s Stroum Lectures will be particularly bittersweet. Last year, who could have imagined that our celebration of her philanthropy at the opening ceremony would be our last chance to publicly offer our thanks?
Well, this year, in Professor Sarna, we have a truly great speaker. Let’s have a turnout that truly reflects our gratitude for the great lady who made it possible for him to address us!