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

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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