Claremont, Calif. (July 14, 2017)—Pitzer College Professor Emeritus of French Harry Senn, an expert in the language of Hugo, Proust and Camus as well as international folklore, died on July 4, 2017. He taught at Pitzer for more than 30 years, from 1970 to 2004.
Senn was both a polyglot and a polymath. At Pitzer, his classes included everything from Introductory French and French Civilization and Folklore to explorations of modernism in literature, science and the arts. He teamed up with professors to teach courses that transcended fields of studies, including an interdisciplinary exploration of the future that he and Professor of Political Studies Sharon Snowiss co-taught in the ’90s called: Year 2012: Utopia or Oblivion?. Senn also served as a principal adviser for European Studies.
His wide-ranging interests drew him out of the halls of academia to research Incan traditions in Peru’s Sacred Valley and to the windswept coast of northwestern France, where he took students to study Breton folklore. But perhaps no country cast a greater spell on him than Romania.
Both in and out of the classroom, Senn became known as an authority on the otherworldly, especially tales of Transylvanian werewolves and vampires. His book, Were-Wolf and Vampire in Romania, was published by a division of Columbia University Press in 1982. He received numerous awards, including two Fulbright Research Fellowships and two International Research and Exchanges Board grants, to study folklore in Romania.
He and his family lived in the southeastern European country for months at a time during the ’70s and ’80s. Barbara Senn, his wife of 53 years, said he wasn’t looking for vampires and werewolves when he first began visiting Romanian villages to interview people about their local legends.
“Then he began listening to their stories and that is what came out over and over and over again,” Barbara said.
The news media regularly tapped into his expertise, especially around Halloween, when television and radio stations would ask for his take on occult legends. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, published the day before Halloween in 1986, Senn said he was fascinated with folklore because “it shows that we as human beings are related” and helps people “explain the world of humans, of nature and the ‘other world.’”
“All these beliefs fit into a whole scheme that balances natural and supernatural worlds,” he said in the interview.
His long-standing interest in belief systems and psychology in part led him to become a licensed marriage, family and child psychotherapist in the ’90s. A specialist in anger management, Senn published his book Constructive Anger: Retooling Our Anger Hammer, using his middle name Anthony, in 2005. He continued as a practicing therapist until a couple months before his death from pancreatic cancer.
A native of Minnesota, Senn earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and both his MA and BA from the University of Minnesota. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, his children, Alex and Ted, his two granddaughters, Lucy and May, a brother, sister and numerous nieces and nephews.