MY WASHINGTON • Spring 2001

Discovering Possibilities

Harry Seigle—chairman of Seigle's Building Centers, Inc., and civic volunteer—credits his Arts & Sciences education with providing him a firm foundation on which to build a successful life.

October 1964, St. Louis. A Washington University freshman lies on his bed in K Dorm, listening to the World Series—Cards vs. Yanks—on his clock radio from home. It is the only familiar object in the room, the only vestige of his life in Elgin, Illinois, a sweet little town 40 miles northwest of Chicago.

His parents have just left after a weekend visit with their firstborn son. He didn't tell them that he is at death's door in English 100 (Composition). The instructor is merciless: "You're going to get it right, or you're going to leave!" Two papers a week, week after week. In addition, any "C" paper must be rewritten, over and over, until it's a "B" paper. Washington University is an ivy-covered boot camp!

Whose idea was it, anyway, that he should go to such a hard school!

Far away, Ken Boyer hits a grand-slam homer, giving the Cardinals a one-run lead they'll keep.

Harry Seigle, A.B. '68, sighs, turns over, and buries his head in his pillow.

Of course, he's the one who chose Washington University. He could shape up academically there, the campus is beautiful, and it is not too far from home, but far enough.

Thirty-six years later, Seigle, now chairman of Elgin-based, family-owned Seigle's Building Centers, Inc., one of the nation's top 50 building materials suppliers, recalls:

"In my freshman and sophomore years, I struggled. I'd never heard of Immanuel Kant, I didn't understand what existentialism was, or why it was important. I never thought political scientists studied data, I thought they just read texts about government. I did not understand Shakespeare as a source of learning about ourselves, humankind—I found it all so difficult, so overwhelming. But listening to the professors express excitement about what the night before I had so tortuously read ...!

"It took a while, but Washington University awakened me to the discovery—and 'discovery' is the key word here—that I could learn more! My horizons broadened."

1965 or 1966, Chicago. "I vividly remember talking with my mom about a Chicago art exhibit," Harry continues, "and I was explaining to her (I had had one course from Norris Smith [professor of art history and archaeology]) about architecture and the importance of the relationship of the building to nature. ... And we looked at each other [with the same thought]: 'This isn't the same kid who graduated from Elgin High School.'"

Fall 1968, Evanston, Illinois. Harry's now a first-year student at Northwestern's law school. Compared to WU's English 100, et al., law school seems friendly, as the other WU grads there agree.

Harry says: "I just couldn't believe that the only reading I had to do [a night] was 40 pages and four cases. And the fact is that law school wasn't that onerous because I had learned how to write back in English 100."

1973, Chicago. Harry, now with a prominent Loop law firm, is finding life and law in the Windy City interesting but unsatisfying; his horizons feel narrow. "I didn't feel a 'fit' there," he says. "I missed the sense of community I had experienced in Elgin."

1974, Elgin. His father, Harold, weighs selling Elgin Lumber (established in 1881, owned by Harold and a partner since 1941, reborn in the '50s as Elgin Wholesale, catering to do-it-yourselfers). Though all three sons have worked there, Harry is not interested in the business, and the twins, Michael (A.B. '80) and Mark, are still teenagers—yet his son the lawyer takes a look at the books; company sales topped $6 million last year. "I was astonished," Harry says. "I said, 'My gosh, it's a big business, Dad!'"

1974-present, Elgin. Harry moves back to Elgin, plunges into work at Seigle's and life in the community. He marries Susan Gilbert and has three sons: Ben, Max (A.B. '00), and Joe ('05). He is twice elected to the Elgin Community College board of trustees and chairs it during a major campus expansion; heads the Elgin United Way; leads support for the Elgin Community Crisis Shelter—one of Illinois' oldest and largest family shelters; is active with Chicago's Jewish United Fund; serves on the board of the renowned Victory Gardens Theater; and becomes a marathon runner.

Harry explains: "It's common, I think, with Arts & Sciences alums that—while they may have become building supply merchants or engineers or specialized physicians—they're the ones who always seem to be active in the local symphony, the school board, or their churches. Their discoveries [in Arts & Sciences] have awakened them to a world bigger than their everyday existence."

2000, Elgin. Seigle's Building Centers, Inc.—with more than 700 employees and $190+ million in annual sales—serves Chicagoland homebuilders, remodelers, and contractors via five building-supply centers; two door assembly plants (Illinois' largest); a regional cabinetry distribution center; a wall-panel, roof, and floor-truss manufacturing plant (building for over 30 homes per day); and two showroom stores featuring cabinetry and millwork.

Harry becomes president of Seigle's in 1978 and chairman in 1995 (with Mark moving up to president), the same year that Illinois Governor Jim Edgar appoints Harry chair of the troubled Illinois Development Finance Authority—Illinois' revenue bond issuer and small-business bank. Harry, who has chaired the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, restores order and, in 1998, endorsed by Edgar, runs for Illinois state comptroller. Unsuccessfully. What a concept!

Meanwhile. Harry's also a dedicated WU volunteer and supporter.

He serves on the Arts & Sciences National Council and its Capital Resources Committee, chairs the Chicago Regional Cabinet, recruits for both Admissions and the William Greenleaf Eliot Society, supports—with pleasure—the Scholars in Arts & Sciences program, endows the Seigle Seminar in American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences, becomes a Life Fellow of the Eliot Society.

"I'll tell you why," he says. "Washington University is part of my character. So it makes sense to give back.

"It's also because the characteristic that really distinguishes Washington University is its unity of purpose: to raise the posture and character of the University to the highest possible level on a world basis.

"I've observed that all the key constituencies—administration, students, faculty, and community—are unified in this purpose. The whole notion of cross-disciplinary studies elsewhere is usually a study in conflict management. At Washington U., there's an eagerness to mix the disciplines.

"So I find it's easy to serve on the National Council—it's not conflict-ridden. Sensing the unified purpose, you clearly understand why you're there.

"Alumni have so many things competing for their time, their attention, their money. It troubles me that our alums may think that since [WU] is a Cadillac institution they don't need to worry about it. My answer: 'It's part of your pedigree, it helped you; whether you're a school teacher or a thoracic surgeon, whether you can afford a dollar or a million, you've got to give something back as others did before you. We have to support the University in its mission of passing along civilization to those who will follow us.'

"The reason I get excited over Washington University is: This is how you should run a major research and teaching university. It's how you should run a business! And what measure of customer satisfaction is more compelling than widespread voluntary alumni giving? What does that say to you about a school?"

—M. M. Costantin