By Jack Corrigan ’17
Charismatic and bowtie-clad, the beloved Slavic Languages and Literatures professor emeritus sparked generations of students’ interest in Eastern European studies during his nearly 50-year tenure at the University. His passion for Russian culture consistently drew over 800 students to his course on the Soviet Union and its successor states, and many credit him with making Northwestern’s Slavic Languages and Literatures department one of the most well regarded programs in the country.
Behind the fascinating man is an equally fascinating life. From his childhood growing up in a Jewish-American family to his career as a Russian-American mediator during the Cold War, Weil accumulated no shortage of stories. After much prodding by friends and colleagues and help from Tony Brown, a Russian professor at Brigham Young University, Weil finally put those stories down on paper, publishing “From the Cincinnati Reds to the Moscow Reds: The Memoirs of Irwin Weil” in May.
The book tells Weil’s life story, beginning with his youth in a baseball-obsessed household in Ohio, where his father, Sidney, owned the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Weil learned a lot from his dad, whom he says had “a heart as big as big could be.”
“If anyone ever came to him for help he would never refuse,” Weil said in a recent interview. “He was a remarkable guy.”
Weil fell in love with Russian culture after he read Dostoevsky’s "The Brothers Karamazov" for an undergraduate course at the University of Chicago. The Russian classic “knocked him for a loop,” and as legend has it, he devoured "Crime and Punishment" in less than 24 hours the next weekend. From then on, Weil was hooked on everything Russian.
Weil taught at Harvard before coming to Northwestern in 1966 when the Slavic Languages and Literatures department was created. However, he spent much of his professional career outside the classroom, striving to make peace between his native United States and his beloved Russia.
Weil traveled to the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia over 100 times after 1960, rubbing elbows with some of Russia’s most esteemed artists and academics, including poet Kornei Chukovsky and composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He lectured at many schools in the Soviet Union and helped found an American Studies Center at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow.
Weil aimed to build understanding in both Evanston and Moscow. During one of the most tense periods in modern history, he helped bridge the gap between the two countries he loved, showing each that the other wasn’t all bad. Like the Russian authors he so admires, Weil summed up his mantra in a story.
Once while teaching at a university in Moscow, he arranged for a few politically conservative Americans to speak to the class. Before the lecture, he gave his students this advice:
“In the end, ask yourself this question: In what ways were they right, and in what ways am I right? That’s what we in America call ‘education.’”
Jack Corrigan, an editorial intern at Northwestern magazine, is about to begin his junior year at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.