Philosophy professor remembered for dedication, encouragement to students

Lee Okster is remembered by students and colleagues for his dedication to his work, even while fighting brain cancer.

Okster, a philosophy professor, died on Feb. 14 about two years after he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer known as a Glioblastoma, according to an obituary.

Okster, 56, taught freshmen in Origins and Evolution of Modern Thought, a course in the University Honors Program, even after undergoing treatment, according to a blog post written by the director the honors program.

He continued to teach at GW through the fall semester despite losing the ability to read in April, according to an obituary.

Julien Reddick, a junior, credited Okster with her decision to double-major in biology and philosophy. She said he set up a meeting for her with the head of the philosophy department, and that he “always knew the right things to say” to support her academically and personally.

She said Okster taught her introduction to philosophy class three years ago and had the class arrange their desks in a circle so they could be connected during their conversations.

“He tried to have everyone participate as much as possible, and even the people who didn’t like to speak, or who were shy, opened up by the end of the semester,” she said. “He was very non-judgmental and made you feel comfortable speaking, something that can sometimes feel daunting in a philosophy class when there can be this unspoken pressure to say something ‘deep’ or ‘insightful.’”

Okster began teaching at GW in 2011 after earning his doctorate in philosophy at Georgetown University and working for 16 years at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Water Enforcement and Permits, according to the obituary.

Maria Frawley, the executive director of the University Honors Program and an English professor, invited students to a March 12 memorial service in McLean, Va. in a blog post shared on Feb. 19.

“I will never forget meeting Professor Okster for the first time and learning of his decision made in mid-career to return to the study of philosophy, something he had loved as an undergraduate,” she wrote. “We in the honors program are grateful that at least some our students had the pleasure and good fortune to study with this man, a wonderful scholar and person.”

Tadeusz Zawidzki, the chair of the philosophy department, said in an email that he got to know Okster during the fall semester, after Zawidzki replaced the department’s former chair.

“I can tell you that, from his records, he was consistently one of the best loved teachers in the philosophy department among undergraduate students,” he said.

Okster grew up in Michigan and attended the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield, Mich. where he earned 12 varsity letters. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan.

After his diagnosis, Okster traveled to Vail, Co., to ski, as well as to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Jamaica, Paris, Las Vegas and Martha’s Vineyard, according to the obituary.

Okster is survived by wife, Claudia O’Brien, and their two sons. His family asked that those attending the funeral service donate in Okster’s name to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at the Duke University Medical Center.

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