Beloved Hill scholar, author and professor dies at 93


Harold Bershady, a respected author, intellectual, professor, and beloved family man, died of kidney and congestive heart failure Feb. 18 at Keystone House Hospice in Wyndmoor. He was 93 and had lived in Mt. Airy for 28 years before moving to Chestnut Hill where he lived for more than three decades.

Bershady's son, Matthew, a professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described Harold as a good father and dedicated teacher who cared deeply about the well-being of others.

“He liked his students’ enthusiasm, idealism and eagerness to learn and debate,” Matthew said. “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’s wife, Suzanne, agreed. “He loved being a teacher so much. People and ideas are what made him happy,” she said. “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.”

Harold Bershady was a first-generation American of immigrant parents, neither of whom attended college. He was born in Toronto and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., with his family when he was six years old. 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 teaching sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained for 43 years – from 1962 to 2005.

“I estimate that I taught between 9,000 and 10,000 students,” he told The Local 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.

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.”

Harold met his wife Suzanne at a party when both were students at the University of Buffalo. They were married in 1958 and came to Philadelphia when Harold began teaching at Penn. The couple moved to the Northeast when their son was two months old. They lived in Germantown for four years, Mt. Airy for 28 years and in Chestnut Hill for 31 years.

That first move came as something of a culture shock, Suzanne Bershady said. “I had never seen a rowhouse in my life,” she said. “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.”

Harold Bershady had a varied working career, which included working on an assembly line and as a welfare caseworker. He wrote five books. The one that drew the most attention was the fascinating “When Marx Mattered: An Intellectual Odyssey” (2014), an “intellectual autobiography,” in which he describes his personal experiences and his encounters with radicals in the 1940s. In it, Harold traces his early passion for Marxism to his moderate liberalism in later years.

Roland Robertson, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, praised Bershady's book, saying "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."

Matthew Bershady explained that his upbringing played a significant role in his decision to pursue an academic career. "Both he and my mother influenced me in ways that I didn't realize at the time, growing up," Matthew said. "They and their friends were always talking about social organization, politics, history and how these were interrelated in the context of current events. 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. His sister died earlier. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.

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