Obituary for former Director Professor Peter Reill

Published: September 6, 2019

Peter Hanns Reill

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, following a fall at his home. He is mourned by his wife, Jenna, his daughter, Dominique, and by his wide circle of friends and colleagues. He was a genial, warm-hearted, generous man, a witty conversationalist and raconteur, who endeared himself to everyone who knew him. All those who loved him are devastated by his untimely passing, for he had many years still to come in a long and productive scholarly career.

Professor Reill was born in Astoria, NY, on December 11, 1938. His parents were immigrants from Germany. He was awarded his BA by New York University in 1960, and his PhD by Northwestern University in 1969. He joined the Department of History at UCLA as an Assistant Professor in 1966, and rose steadily through the ranks, becoming Full Professor in 1980, and Chair of the Department from 1988 to 1991. He retired in 2011. His research centered on the cultural and intellectual history of Europe during the 18th-century Enlightenment, focusing on the interchange of ideas between Germany, Britain, and France, and the interdisciplinary relationship between science and philosophy. His work was internationally recognized; he received numerous fellowships and held several Visiting Professorships in this country and in Europe. He produced major studies in his field, together with a long series of articles and edited volumes. He was at work on the research for another book at the time of his death.

Professor Reill was a skilled and dedicated teacher. He taught a wide range of undergraduate lecture courses and graduate seminars, admired for their clarity and intellectual rigor. He was approachable and cared deeply for his students. He will be fondly remembered by the many students he nurtured, who went on to academic careers of their own.

Professor Reill’s crowning achievement was his brilliantly successful service as Director of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and the Center for 17th-and 18th-Century Studies at UCLA, from 1991 to 2011. He took the helm at a moment of budgetary uncertainty but, undeterred, quickly expanded and transformed both these institutions. In his hands they became centers of advanced historical and literary study, nationally and internationally renowned, attracting students and established scholars from across the globe. Professor Reill was an innovative administrator and (an essential accomplishment) also a highly skilled fund-raiser, winning numerous grants from donors and scholarly funding institutions. At the Clark Library he embarked on a major acquisitions program to extend the library’s holdings beyond its core collections in British 17th and 18th century history and literature, to give it a broader chronological and international range. Through judicious purchases he built up the Clark Library’s collection of books and papers relating to Oscar Wilde, making it the most important collection of Wilde materials in the world, which now attracts researchers from across the USA and abroad. He instituted an Outreach Program for K-12 students, in conjunction with LAUSD, to foster their interest in and love of the humanities. He set up a program of poetry readings, and as a lover of classical music, an annual series of recitals and chamber music concerts; both the poetry readings and the concerts were staged in the grand setting of the Library’s wood-paneled salon.

At the same time, Professor Reill worked tirelessly to expand the activities of the UCLA Center for 17th– and 18th-Century Studies. He set up a full schedule of annual conferences, held at the Clark Library, with up to twenty sessions each year, side-by-side with one- or two-day scholarly meetings, on a vast range of literary and historical themes. He established relations with numerous universities and scholarly institutions in the United States and Europe. An indication of the international recognition the UCLA Center attained under Professor Reill’s leadership was its role as the venue for the 34th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, in August 2003; Professor Reill was at that time the elected President of the Society. This very successful meeting, and the activities which Professor Reill arranged to accompany it–films, concerts, visits to cultural centers in Los Angeles–attracted over 1200 scholars, not only from the USA and Europe, but also from countries in Asia and Latin America. This resounding success is a fitting tribute to Professor Reill’s talents as an imaginative administrator and coordinator of landmark intellectual forums.

Professor Reill will be terribly missed by his grieving family, and by his great circle of devoted friends and colleagues. Family and friends alike share in the profound shock and sense of loss at his being torn away from them so suddenly and tragically. He was an internationally renowned scholar, and a brilliant creator of programs that fostered a diverse range of intellectual endeavors. But above all, he will be remembered as a decent, witty, friendly man, and a generous host who loved to entertain. His memory will be treasured by all those who knew and loved him.

The funeral will be private.

[Piece written by Geoffrey Symcox, UCLA History Department]