Walter Bershady, 93, a brilliant but humble professor, author, intellectual, beloved family man and scholar who lived in Chestnut Hill for the past 31 years and in Mt. Airy for 28 years before that, died Feb. 18 of kidney failure and congestive heart failure at the Keystone House Hospice in Wyndmoor.
“He cared deeply about people and their well-being, and he was a good father,” Bershady's son, Matthew, a professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, told us. “He said his parents encouraged him to read, learn and go to college He was a first-generation American of immigrant parents who had not gone to college.
“He liked the enthusiasm, idealism and eagerness to engage in learning and debate with students. He often said the most rewarding teaching he did was at night school for returning students; they were older with more life experience. He said he learned as much from them as they did from him.”
Bershady was born in Toronto and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., with his family when he was 6. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Buffalo and a doctorate in sociology and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.
He came to Philadelphia to accept a job offer to teach sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained from 1962 to 2005. “I estimate that I taught between 9,000 and 10,000 students,” he told us in a 2014 interview. “I could have kept teaching until I dropped, but I knew it was time to go when macular degeneration caused me to have difficulty even seeing my students’ faces. I had a great career teaching, though, and wonderful colleagues. It was the joy of my life.”
Bershady won the prestigious Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching at Penn in 1993 and was nominated several times. “Teaching is an obligation,” he said. As for his personal philosophy of life, Bershady described himself as a “social Democrat” who believes that “government has a role to play … I don’t care how rich people are; I just don’t want people to be poor.”
Bershady's wife, Suzanne (nee Kottek), 85, told us she met Walter at a party when both were students at the University of Buffalo. They were married in 1958 and came to Philadelphia when Walter began teaching at Penn. They moved to the Northeast when their son was two months old. After one year there, they lived in Germantown for four years, on West Mt. Airy Avenue for 28 years and in Chestnut Hill for the past 31 years.
“I had never seen a rowhouse in my life,” said Mrs. Bershady. “We spent a lot of time walking in the woods in Wissahickon Park and loved it. There were not so many people in the park back then. He loved people. He was so warm and fuzzy. He loved being a teacher so much. People and ideas are what made him happy. When he was a child, his teachers meant so much to him, and he wanted to have the same effect on his students when he became a teacher.”
Bershady, who also had worked on an assembly line and as a welfare caseworker, wrote five books, but the one that drew the most attention was the fascinating “When Marx Mattered: An Intellectual Odyssey” (2014). He described it as an “intellectual autobiography,” in which he traced his early passion for Marxism to his moderate liberalism in later years. He discussed his personal experiences and encounters with radicals in the 1940s.
Roland Robertson, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote this about the book: “Bershady’s 'When Marx Mattered' is erudite, poignant and historically insightful ... It is an excellent example of the proposition that the very best sociology consists in refracted forms of autobiography.”
“Both he and my mother influenced me in ways that I didn't realize at the time, growing up,” Matthw Bershady said. “They and their friends were always talking about social organization, politics, history and the mix of how these strands were inter-related in the context of current events. It helped me develop a sense and appreciation of a lot of ideas in the social sciences … In short, both he and my mom really engaged with me about ideas and how to express them in writing.”
In addition to his wife and son, Bershady is survived by a grandson and other relatives. A sister died earlier. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.
You can reach Len Lear at email@example.com