Marshall Spector, Stony Brook University philosophy professor.

Marshall Spector, Stony Brook University philosophy professor. Credit: Spector family

Marshall Spector spent nearly a half century in academia with the belief teaching was not about being an authority on a subject but rather a means to help students hone their own thinking.

It was perhaps why he never burned out on lecturing, his family and friends said. Even after retiring from Stony Brook University's philosophy department, he was known to hold court at Starbucks in Lake Grove, listening calmly to those with whom he disagreed about politics, religion and science. 

Spector, who spent nearly 40 years teaching students the philosophy of science, died July 21 from cancer. He was 86.

"He believed muddled thinking lay behind many problems in the world," said his daughter, Jessica Spector, a philosophy professor at Yale University. 

She remembered her father telling her about global warming when she was in preschool, and that, "by the time we could measure it, the processes would already be in motion."

He also was known to argue with the local school board over gender discrimination, dress codes and free speech "not because he wanted to be an activist, but because he disliked irrational, unjust rules," Jessica Spector said.

"I think often of something he said to me in that context: 'People aren’t meant to serve institutions; institutions are meant to serve people,'” she said.

Marshall Spector was born Feb. 11, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois, to Israel Spector and Pauline Futorian, immigrants from Ukraine.

Marshall Spector's father was a psychiatrist and his mother worked in her family’s upholstery store. 

They divorced when Marshall was two years old, and he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household by his mother and grandparents. His mother remarried and his sister Lillian was born.

Marshall Spector graduated from Lane Technical High School and Illinois Institute of Technology, both in Chicago.

He earned a master's degree in physics from the University of Chicago.

In 1956, he met Nan Shipman while on a double-date. Both were dating others but Marshall and Nan remained friends, and in 1959 they went on their first date together. They were married a few weeks later. 

Marshall Spector earned a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1963, and taught briefly in the Duke University philosophy department before Stony Brook hired him in 1968. He retired from Stony Brook in 2011.

Bill Wiesner, former assistant vice provost for undergraduate studies at SBU, became close with Marshall through weekly lunches after they had retired.

They often engaged diners at nearby tables in their discussions, Wiesner recalled. 

"When he disagreed with someone, he didn't put them down; he listened to their point of view," said Wiesner, 81, of East Setauket.

"Even when he disagreed … He would say, 'Ok, that's how you feel,' and we could keep talking … ," Wiesner said. "It's why I cherished his friendship so much because it was so rare. It was a matter of not having to be right all the time and having a willingness to keep learning," 

Spector is survived by his wife, Nan, of Setauket; daughter Jessica and son-in-law Mike Delgass of Weston, Connecticut; his sister, Lillian Jones of Mahopac, New York, and four grandchildren. He is predeceased by his son, Anthony Spector. 

The family is planning a private memorial service in December to honor Marshall and Anthony. 

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