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Ashley Schiff

Ashley Schiff was passionate in everything he did.  He never came to class to merely lecture. He would prod and show great delight when students delivered the proper responses. 

This Fall, we sadly observe the 50th Anniversary of the passing of Professor Ashley Schiff.  While his dedication to improving campus life as Master of Cardozo College is well-known and his conservation efforts are legendary (Did he really chain himself to a tree destined to be chopped down?), what I remember most is Ashley Schiff, the teacher and mentor.

Ashley Schiff was passionate in everything he did.  He never came to class to merely lecture. He would prod and show great delight when students delivered the proper responses.  You did not take a Schiff course if you were looking for an easy ‘A’. While he was a demanding teacher, what he really taught me was critical analysis.  I still vividly recall two classes. In one, he came into the room and asked “What’s wrong with page 28?” After I stopped looking for typos, I realized that there was some logical fallacy that he thought was glaring.  This method of challenging written materials was not without humor. In another class, a fellow-student was having difficulty explaining the meaning of an article that was part of an assigned reading. Professor Schiff commented “It can’t be that difficult – I know the author”.  From those days on, I learned to read everything with a critical eye.  

In my senior year, I became Professor Schiff’s student assistant.  I am sure that his recommendation helped with me to receive a fellowship for graduate study at Indiana University.  Unfortunately, 1968 was not a great year for men to graduate college, with the Vietnam War raging and the draft looming over my head.  When Ashley Schiff learned that I was considering doing something that may have resulted in very negative consequences, he took the time to call me at Indiana to talk me out of it.  That action went far beyond a teacher’s job description. This was caring at its finest.

I was married in June, 1969.  Ashley and Dorothy Schiff were honored guests at my wedding.  His influence was noticeable in our honeymoon choice. He helped plan our trip out West, where we visited many of the National Parks.   At the end of that summer, my new wife (also a Stony Brook grad) and I met Professor Schiff when he came to New York City to attend the American Political Science Association Conference.  Little did we know that it was the last time we would see him.

About a month later I was in Navy boot camp when I heard the news that he had died.  He was 37 years old, leaving a wife and three young children. Along with all stress involved in recruit training, I felt that I had lost my guiding light.

It is so hard to believe that it has been fifty years.  I still think of him often. Thank you, Professor Schiff, for showing me the art of critical thinking, for demonstrating the value of commitment to chosen pursuits and causes, and for having been such a significant influence on my life.  

-Mark Lewis ’68


Dr. Ashley Schiff was a dedicated and popular Associate Professor of Political Science and avowed naturalist in the early days of Stony Brook University. In the early fall of 1969, he died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 37, leaving behind a wife and young family. In 1970 a 26 acre woodland, lined with oak and maple trees, often walked by Prof. Schiff and his students was set aside to honor him. This Nature Preserve was dedicated in his memory by the former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and SUNY Stony Brook President John S. Toll. The Ashley Schiff Park Preserve is located in the southern campus between Roth Quad and the Marine Science Research Center.

Join us Homecoming weekend for the 50th Anniversary of the Ashley Schiff Preserve – celebrating 50 years of Forever Wild with Keynote Speaker, Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn.


This story was submitted as part of “My Stony Brook Memories,” an initiative of the Stony Brook Alumni Association to collect and share cherished memories, stories and reflections written by Stony Brook’s own alumni. Send us your news and memories here

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4 comments

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  • I too took 2 courses with Professor Schiff in my 6th & 7th Semesters. I graduated in 1967. Like Mark Lewis, Professor Schiff was one of my favorite professors. What Mark didn’t mention was his wry sense of humor. I also believe that Professor Schiff’s father was Head Groundskeeper at Shea Stadium which further endeared Professor Schiff to me. I was unaware of his conservation efforts. Yes, Professor Schiff did encourage class participation & he wasn’t an easy marker, but if you did the work & put in the time, you really did learn. His untimely death was a great loss to the University Community.

  • Adding to Mark Lewis’ note, I was also profoundly influenced by Dr. Schiff. I was a resident of Cardozo College when Dr. Schiff was Master. He introduced the most comprehensive program for a residential college at Stony Brook.
    His book “Fire and Water” was an amazing environmental book before there were amazing environmental books. The summer of my junior year, I served as a Smoke Chaser for the US Forest Service in the NezPerce National Forest in Grangeville, Idaho. It was life altering work. I attended the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and have pursued a career in environmental health and safety.
    I credit Dr. Schiff to making me aware of the possibilities and his kindness in the promotion of opportunities. Roy Deitchman ’71

  • There is also a Cedar of Lebanon tree on the academic mall that was planted by Hillel, a Jewish student organization that Dr. Schiff helped advise, with his encouragement and that he nurtured. After his death the tree was rededicated to his memory. In recent years it was rededicated once again by the entire campus Interfaith Center in acknowledgement of his inspirational leadership that lives on through so many alumni that he taught. A new plaque was installed and the tree was given new meaning to another generation of Stony Brook students.
    Rabbi Joseph Topek
    Director, Stony Brook Hillel 1982-2019 (Director Emeritus)

  • I loved reading the stories that were posted here. Professor Ashley Schiff had a twin brother David and I was his oldest nephew. I remember the call from my aunt in the middle of the night to my father asking if he could drive from the Bronx to Long Island to convince Ashley to unchain himself from the tree that was supposed to be bulldozed in the morning. I remember the frustration of my aunt when my father refused saying Ashley is right.
    Both brothers were very close but in my early childhood Ashley was in California. When he moved to be a Professor at Stony Brook, I enjoyed my times together (Ashley was funnier than my father). Later in life I attended Stony Brook Medical School and would frequently go for quiet walks by myself in the Ashley Preserve, making believe I was walking with my uncle who passed when I was only almost 11 years old.
    Correction to one of the posts above:
    Professor Schiff’s father – Harry was a Detective in the NYPD and one of the founding members of the NYPD Shomrim Society. He retired in the 1960’s and became the #2 of Security at Shea Stadium.
    His mother Pauline worked for the New York Globe newspaper and was one of the founding members of the Martha Graham Dance Troupe at the start of the Modern Dance era.
    His wife Dorothy is my amazing Aunt and raised my three fantastic cousins!

    I look forward to meeting all of you this Friday evening.

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