Donald "Don" Sievert knew how to read a room.
“He was ready to engage with the students about the material in whatever way and at whatever level the students were willing and able,” said Mike Bostwick, a former student and a close friend of Sievert. “This speaks to his generosity as a listener and a thinker.”
Sievert, 77, passed away Monday, Aug. 24. A memorial service will be held at MU at a later date. At MU, he taught philosophy, with an emphasis on the works of Descartes and Wittgenstein, for 47 years, continuing as a professor emeritus.
Those who knew him say Sievert loved people, a prerequisite for any great teacher.
As long-time friend Peter Markie, professor emeritus of philosophy at MU, put it, “he understood that we don’t just teach subjects, we teach people.”
Markie knew Sievert for over 40 years. He recalls Sievert was one of the first people who interviewed him for a job at MU. Early on, their research interests overlapped. At one point, both were studying the history of philosophy.
Reflecting on what made Sievert successful in the classroom, Markie pointed to his ability to connect with people.
“He had a gift for establishing warm, trusting relationships with students,” Markie said. “He was an exceptionally generous guy who had this talent for making people feel at ease.”
When she was a student in the public school system, his daughter, Laura Sievert, remembers always seeing her father in the same spot on the MU campus.
“The vision and the memory that I will always hold of my father is that of him in the old Brady Commons sitting surrounded by students at lunchtime laughing and talking,” she said. “Those were some of my fondest memories of him.”
Sievert began his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis. He left after a few years because, in the words of his daughter, "it became research-heavy and Mizzou afforded him a great opportunity to develop into the type of professor he wanted to be." Sievert moved with his family to Columbia in 1973.
Over the years, Sievert was active in the community. An obituary provided by his family noted he was on the board for the Wardrobe, the Daniel Boone Regional Library, MU Faculty Council and the MU Retiree Association among others.
Bostwick, his former student, first experienced Sievert’s unique teaching style in fall 2000 when he took an introductory course with him designed to prepare students for college life. After that, Bostwick made sure he signed up for as many of Sievert's classes as he could. His favorite professor later ended up advising Bostwick on his undergraduate honors thesis.
Over time, their relationship blossomed into a special friendship.
“I had so many hours of conversation with him over the last 20 years,” Bostwick said. “The joy of conversation with him was something that was the most important to me.”
Growing up, Laura Sievert said she and her father often had long discussions at the dinner table. She would always leave those conversations with a fresh perspective.
“Inevitably, I would find myself flipping my own views back and forth because he would just ask questions that would make you change what you thought or question it,” she said.
Looking back, there are a couple of things about Don Sievert that resonated with Bostwick.
“He had such a prodigious memory,” Bostwick said. “It allowed him to make all of our conversations into a coherent whole.”
He remembers Sievert used to bring bagels and orange juice for his morning classes on test days. Sievert’s tests were unlike those of other courses. The week before his tests, he would enlist the help of his students to write the essay questions.
“His exams were an opportunity to grow and to figure out something new,” Bostwick said. “I would always come out of his exams with new thoughts.”
Arthur Jago, professor emeritus of management at MU, met Sievert in the early 2000s at the MU Faculty Council. What struck him then was Sievert’s “in-depth appreciation for the role faculty could play in making the university a better place.”
Sievert spent 12 years on the council. During his tenure, he used his platform to emphasize the quality of faculty at the university. In the words of Jago, “Everything he did was to get the university to recognize the wealth of expertise the faculty had to offer.”
Even when Sievert was away from MU he was always willing to offer his support to those who needed it. Laura Sievert recalled he used to take her friends from junior high and high school to lunch when they sought parental input.
They knew he wouldn't judge them, she said. His message to them was always the same: "I love you. I'm so proud of you. It's all going to be ok."
Don Sievert cared deeply about each person who crossed his path.
Laura Sievert put it best: "He always wanted to take each person he came in touch with and help them be themselves."