Herman Warsh 1924-2006

by Maryanne Mott

H%20Warsh.jpgThe first time I saw Herman, he was making a presentation to the trustees of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation about home school counselors. He absolutely sparkled. Smart, energetic, and passionate, he truly stood out. Little did we know what lay ahead for the two of us.

Let me first tell you about the remarkable years that preceded that day in 1973. The third child of immigrant parents, Herman E. Warsh was born in Calgary, Canada in March 1924. By late 1925, the entire family moved to Los Angeles where, as intellectuals with few skills and no trade, they eked out a living. His father Sam Warshowsky worked as a greengrocer while his mother Rebecca Wiestinietski worked as a Fuller Brush saleswoman and sold subscriptions to the Los Angeles Examiner — a paper she and Sam would not have in the house.

As a child, Herman planted corn beneath the clothesline. As an adult, he grew more than 150 varieties of fuchsia! At age 10 — already curious, restless, and resourceful — he hopped on a train and traveled with hobos from L.A. to San Francisco to visit his sister Rose, entirely oblivious to any alarm he caused his family. Ultimately, his wanderlust took us to such distant places as New Zealand, Chile, Kenya, Thailand, South Africa, and Japan. Persia, Egypt, and Turkey remained serious goals.

Herman’s education began conventionally. However, a combination of boredom and poverty led Herman to leave Roosevelt High School at 14. He attended the alternative Ford High for the last two required years and landed his very first job at Sentous Street Book Center repairing school textbooks. As a truant, he spent most of his time at the library or practicing his flute.

On July 29, 1941, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lorraine Rack. For the next year, he stocked for Thrifty Drugs until, compelled by what he believed to be a “just war,” he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in mid 1942. According to family lore, this normally honest man lied about his age, cheated on the eye tests, and fudged his weight to get into the military. He served in the South Pacific and returned home in 1945 a Yeoman, First Class. The rest of his life he was an ardent anti-war activist.

Upon his return, he held a wide variety of jobs to help support an expanded household consisting of his working wife, their two young children Cathy and Michael, and his parents, even as he was recovering from shrapnel injury to his eyes. Herman drove taxis, delivered live chickens, bartended, packaged See’s Candies, wrapped gifts, delivered parcels for the USPO, bagged at Daylight Supermarket, and did manual labor for a trailer manufacturer.

Thanks to the GI Bill, some crucial mentoring, sustained support from his family, and his own prodigious work ethic, in 1949 Herman embarked on what was to become an educational journey he had never imagined. In three short years, he went from high school dropout to a master’s degree, earning almost perfect grades while holding a fulltime job. Two decades later, he completed the journey, earning his doctorate in education at Wayne State University.

It was during this journey that a colleague suggested he might enjoy teaching and steered him into the El Segundo school system. From 1952 to 1965, he served as the reading specialist for the district and taught social studies and english at the junior high school and history and civics at the high school. Herman was the one to whom school administrators sent all the “difficult” kids. He loved them. What others saw as problems, he saw as needs and opportunities. In his youth, Herman had been active in the American Students’ Union. As a teacher, he was soon involved in unionizing activities, including the formation of the California Teachers Union. He also headed the California Reading Association and later worked for a year developing a reading series for SRA, a private textbook publisher.

In the mid 1960s, Herman spent a year in charge of literacy education programs for Hawai‘i on the big island. He also taught at the University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan. As a consultant to the International Reading Association, he taught literacy to the U.S. troops in Germany, to First Nations’ peoples in Alaska, and to incarcerated men in the California penal system. Following the awarding of his doctorate in 1969, he was recruited to be director of educational programs for the Mott Program lodged in the Flint Public School system. He remained in Michigan until fall 1974 when he became head of the department of elementary education at the University of New Mexico.

In 1977, he moved to Santa Barbara and we were married in 1980. Together we have been deeply involved in our two family foundations — C.S. Fund and Warsh Mott Legacy, part of the Flint, Michigan-based Ruth Mott Foundation — and in related nonprofit work. Herman gave generously of his time and provided vital leadership as boardmember of High Country News, Friends of the Earth, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and Pacifica Graduate Institute; he also played an instrumental role in the Silkwood Campaign. Most recently, we began to collect art by African-Americans to ensure its public exhibition, recognition, and enjoyment.

A voracious reader from an early age, Herman was an integrative thinker. His interests ranged from history and politics, to food and travel, to the sports pages (go Dodgers!) and comicstrips. He was a compulsive newspaper clipper. He loved music of many genres, especially the opera. As a child, he participated in the Katz on Keys music program and played flute in the L.A. Junior Symphony. In his seventies, he took piano lessons in Montana from a brilliant nonagenarian. An avid hiker, Herman trekked in Nepal, Peru, Norway, England, and Montana. During the L.A. years, he could be found catching the waves on his long, heavy surfboard. At age 50, on his own in Albuquerque, he learned to cook and soon made fine cuisine one of his most appreciated talents. Irrepressibly upbeat, he had a song for every occasion and was especially devoted to his canine companions, Bucky and Sassy. Herman always took great interest in young people and derived special joy from our ever-expanding family.

Raised by ethical anarchists, Herman acquired strong values and lived an examined life. A secular man for whom religion failed to satisfy a probing mind and heart, Herman nevertheless discerned for himself an exceptionally clear and consistent set of values by which he directed his life. A staunch civil libertarian, Herman worked ceaselessly for the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities for which he fought in World War II. More than anything, he yearned to be useful to others and in some modest measure pass on the help he’d been given along his way. For Herman — a man of great intellect, gentle heart, and unstinting kindness — the sun was shining every day and he lived as though he were its emissary. He cared deeply and gave fully. When I asked him what he would choose were he to have an epitaph, with characteristic modesty he replied, “He tried.”

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