Leonard Siegel, Ph.D., ’50 interacts with prominent leaders
By John Walsh
E everyone usually has at least one story of an encounter with a famed person. However, not everyone can say that those run-ins were with many powerful world figures. Leonard Siegel, Ph.D., ’50 worked as a professor of history for 32 years at California University of Pennsylvania and simultaneously established relationships with leaders throughout the 20th century. As a result of his interests and research in history and philosophy, Siegel amassed a personal collection of historical documents, military medals, papers, more than 300 signatures of world leaders, and mementos, much of which he has donated to John Carroll.
Siegel’s aunt, Martha Bradley, who was a journalist in Cleveland who worked for the Cleveland News, influenced a young Siegel significantly and is another reason why he collected so many autographs of powerful people.
“She was very well known,” Siegel says. “She was a redheaded Irishwoman with green eyes who was individualistic. She gave me a $1,000 bill when I graduated with a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1960. My dad wanted me to be a doctor, but she wanted me to do what I enjoyed, and I was interested in history and philosophy.”
Bradley encouraged the young Siegel to collect autographs, starting with Wendell Lewis Willkie, a corporate lawyer and dark horse who became the Republican Party nominee for president in 1940. A short time later, he wrote a letter to the White House, and within weeks, an autographed photograph of President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in the mail. Additionally, Siegel wrote a letter of flattery to Fidel Castro, the former communist dictator of Cuba.
The Cleveland Heights High School graduate says meeting U.S. President Harry Truman was a life-changing experience. In fall 1948, Siegel was a freshman at John Carroll when he and a group of friends went to see the president during his campaign swing throughout Ohio. Having ascended to the White House as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the former vice president wasn’t given much of a chance in that year’s presidential election against Republican Thomas E. Dewey. But Truman’s confidence grabbed Siegel’s attention – literally. The president walked across a red carpet toward Siegel and his friends and clasped Siegel by the shoulder and said: “Apparent defeat today will mean victory for me in November.” From that day forward, Siegel was guided by Truman’s never-give-up spirit. He received Truman’s autograph and added to his collection, which includes signatures from German dictator Adolf Hitler, Castro, and every president dating from Herbert Hoover.
Some autograph opportunities arose unexpectedly. In May 1981 – when he was teaching a class about 20th-century dictatorships – Siegel was conferring with colleagues in California’s history department when he was called to the telephone to discover he was on the line with Ronald Reagan’s secretary, Ann Higgins, who asked him questions about the Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious and political leader of Iran who lead the 1979 Iranian Revolution. A colleague held the phone up to the people nearby and recorded the conversation, which took an hour and 15 minutes.
“At first, I thought it was a joke, then she said, ‘Someone wants to talk to you, and the president got on the phone and said, ‘Thanks for your service to your country.’ He asked if there was anything he could do for me, and I said, ‘You could send me your and Mrs. Reagan’s autographs.”
Reagan called Siegel because of his knowledge about the Middle East, specifically British control there. At CWRU, he wrote a dissertation about that region of the world, which was turned into a book titled “A History of the British East India Company from 1813 and its Aftermath.”
Oddly to some, Siegel admired Richard Nixon. Siegel received his first Nixon autograph in 1957 when the future president was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. Siegel isn’t sure what attracted him to Nixon, except that Nixon was interesting. The attraction deepened throughout the years, as Siegel maintained an active correspondence with him. Siegel, who was also a foreign affairs advisor to Reagan, amassed a collection of letters from Nixon and various White House papers. In 1991, almost 20 years after Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, Siegel traveled with his son, Bill, a high school history teacher, to Saddle River, N.J., where Nixon had an office, for a two-hour conversation.
Siegel, who taught American and European history, also had a relationship with, and possessed numerous items from, Albert Speer, who was the Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich during part of World War II and Adolf Hitler’s chief architect before assuming ministerial office. These items include photos of Hitler and Speer’s tie pin decorated with a swastika. Siegel wrote to Speer, which resulted in Speer inviting Siegel and his wife, Lorraine, to see him in Heidelberg, Germany in September of 1981 for a three-day interview.
“I was the last person who personally interviewed Speer,” he says.
Throughout the years, Siegel and his wife – who he was married to for 48 years and who died in 1980 – traveled to 36 different countries throughout the world. During their travels, Siegel conducted research about the holocaust. The research, which he started in 1970, was recognized by the state of Pennsylvania. In 1998, he was called out of retirement back to the classroom to teach a course about the holocaust based on his research.
“I even had survivors in my class,” says Siegel, who taught as a guest speaker in the Pittsburgh area for many years.
In 2011, Siegel received an honorary degree from JCU. He said he attended Carroll because of the encouragement he received from a close friend of his father, Dr. Edward Neary.
“I received the best education and am very proud of my JCU experience,” he says.
JCU’s military science department plans to display the uniforms, medals, and hats gifted by Siegel in its offices for students. Videos in Siegel’s collection intend to be used in the history department’s classrooms; and the Nixon papers, letters, and autographs plan to be placed in the library for restricted research. Other items will be placed in archives for reference as needed. JCU