In Memoriam: Peter Hanns Reill

December 11, 1938 – August 18, 2019

Memories of Peter Reill from UCLA, by Stefania Tutino

Peter Hanns Reill, Professor Emeritus of History and former Director of the Clark Library and the Center for 17th- and 18th- Century Studies at UCLA, passed away suddenly on August 18, 2019. All of his friends, colleagues, and students are deeply saddened by his untimely death, and our thoughts are with his wife Jenna and his daughter Dominique as they mourn their immense loss.

Peter was a distinguished scholar, an extraordinary administrator, and a generous, warm, and decent man. Even though Peter was, in many ways, a quintessential New Yorker, he didn’t have any nostalgia for the city where he was born and grew up. He came to LA in 1966, when he joined the Department of History of UCLA, and immediately fell in love with both the university and the city, where he firmly planted his roots, leaving indelible personal and professional marks.

Peter’s scholarship centered on the intersection between science and philosophy during the Enlightenment. Although characterized by a profound transnational approach, its main focus was on Germany, and in fact, Peter’s works on the German Enlightenment are among the most original, creative, and novel contributions to the field. Contrary to the traditional view, Peter argued that the Enlightenment did not represent the absolute triumph of mechanism and instrumental reason. Instead, he saw the Enlightenment as a much more complex set of different —and at times diverging—ideas, doctrines, and intellectual traditions, including vitalism and religious pietism. Peter’s scholarship provides not only a nuanced and rich understanding of the German (and European) Enlightenment, but also an insightful reflection on what modernity is and how it came about.

Peter was not satisfied with simply furthering his own research agenda; he strongly believed that supporting and nurturing other people’s scholarship was just as important. Several cohorts of undergraduate and graduate students have benefitted from his attentive and engaged teaching and mentoring: his classes were clear and rigorous, his comments were on point, and his personal attitude was open and caring. Peter always made sure that all students felt comfortable in the class and got the help they needed to succeed, regardless of whether they were taking the class with the intention of going on to graduate school and to an academic career—as several of them did—or simply to get the credits they needed to maintain their Division I Athletic Scholarship. Peter’s teaching left a lasting memory on his students. One of them, who enrolled at UCLA the same year as Peter arrived there, was so impressed by his teacher’s challenging and stimulating course that in 2008 he decided to establish an endowed chair, the Peter H. Reill Chair in European History in his former teacher’s honor.

Prof. Reill in his element, opening remarks for the inaugural William Andrews Clark Lecture on Oscar Wilde on October 14, 2007 at the Center for 17th- and 18th- Century Studies at UCLA. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

Prof. Reill in his element, opening remarks for the inaugural William Andrews
Clark Lecture on Oscar Wilde on October 14, 2007 at the Center for 17th- and
18th- Century Studies at UCLA. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

The same intellectual generosity that informed his teaching and mentoring also inspired all Peter’s activities as an administrator, which in many ways are truly extraordinary. Most notable was his directorship, since 1991, of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and the Center for 17th- and 18th- Century Studies at UCLA, a position he held until retirement. Under his leadership, the Library and the Center became two of the most innovative, vibrant, and internationally-recognized venues for the study of early modern and modern European history and literature. Given his characteristic humility and generosity, Peter would have certainly demurred and attributed the stunning success of these institutions to his collaborators—many of whom he personally hired, selected, promoted, or mentored—but the truth is that this success wouldn’t have been possible without his inexhaustible energy, keen eye for spotting and cultivating talent, unmatched intellectual generosity, and superior fundraising ability. During his tenure, a judicious and energetic acquisition policy allowed the Library to greatly enrich its holdings, while the Center planned, organized, and sponsored dozens of conferences, programs, workshops, and seminars. Peter participated personally in every aspect of the Center’s activities, sharing ideas and possible topics, identifying participants, and always making sure that the programs included junior scholars alongside established senior ones. He was always present at the actual events, where he would give the introductory remarks and then take his seat, always in the same chair—in the last row in the back of the wood-paneled salon of the Clark Library, where all conferences and seminars were held—where he would stay for the remainder of the program, asking questions that were both sharp and kind.

Peter envisioned the Clark not only as a hub for scholarly interactions, but also as a venue for culture lato sensu. To this effect, he set up a program of poetry readings in the Library, and a much celebrated annual series of recitals and chamber music concerts—classical music was one of Peter’s life-long passions. Despite his professional standing and accomplishments, Peter never forgot the humble background of his immigrant family, and had no trace of, and no patience for, any pretense of elitism. Indeed, he always sought to make the cultural activities of the Center and the Library available to the wider community. Among the several initiatives he took in this regard, he instituted an outreach program for K-12 students, in partnership with the LA Unified School District.

On a slightly less scholarly note, Peter was a charming and charismatic host during conference dinners, in which scholarly conversation flowed and personal friendships were cemented over Italian food and wine; a wine connoisseur and a lover of food, Peter was an accomplished cook specializing in Italian cuisine, with the occasional detours into France and into Japan for memorable sushi-making sessions. Many of his friends and colleagues will surely remember Peter’s beloved pasta alla carbonara as well as a show-stopping cassoulet as two highlights of his repertoire.

Describing all that Peter did in his official role as director of the Clark and Center does not even begin to do justice to the immense intellectual generosity and personal warmth that Peter showed toward all the young students and scholars who gravitated around these institutions. He always had time for answering questions, sharing his knowledge and wisdom, and offering scholarly suggestions, career advice, or sometimes simply a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, both metaphorically and literally. I first met Peter while I was an exchange student from Italy, and later on as a postdoc at the Clark, and I am sure that I speak for many other fellow students, postdocs, and junior scholars when I say that even though Peter was not in our field and was not our official advisor or mentor, he did as much as any other senior scholar to make it possible for us to have a career in academia. When we thanked him, he always told us that the best way to honor our debt is paying it forward, and even though I know that we try, I am not sure that we will ever be able to fully succeed, because our debt is so very large.

Stefania Tutino is Professor of History and Italian at UCLA.