University of Massachusetts Amherst

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A Tribute to Joseph Marcus (1921-1985)

Many of us at the College of Engineering know very little about the larger-than-life faculty members who ran the college during its early years, even those professors whose names have been immortalized in our buildings. One of these pioneers was Professor of Chemical Engineering Joseph Sol Marcus of Marcus Hall fame. The college recently uncovered a moving tribute to Dr. Marcus written shortly after he died of cancer on November 1, 1985. Among many other distinctions, Dr. Marcus was one of the main authors of the present university structure, with its president in Boston and chancellors for each campus. Here is his eulogy in its entirety.

In 1965, the University of Massachusetts was breaking away from the old Mass Aggie image and beginning to feel the first gusts of the politically turbulent decade ahead. For convocation, the students chose Joseph Sol Marcus, the assistant dean of the School of Engineering as their main speaker. It was the first time a faculty member had been chosen for the task; and it came after Marcus had been voted recipient of the prestigious Metawampe Award for outstanding teacher of the year. He could have given a traditional address, but that wasn’t Joseph Marcus’ style.

To the faculty, Marcus said: “Students tend usually as undergraduates to idolize not the authorities in the various disciplines, but rather those faculty whose primary interest is the student as a person. Many faculty,” he said, “are enthusiastic about working with honor students who, in many instances, don’t really need the faculty, while shunning so-called average students, many of whom might, with proper encouragement, help, and direction, develop into just such honor students.”

To the students, Marcus said: “I (have seen) too many complaining students who, when given the opportunity to break down depersonalization about which they are always screaming, either did not know how to or did not really care deeply enough to take advantage of the chance provided. I am disturbed in seeing the manifestations of unrest on this campus which center frequently on such theoretically significant topics as Spring Day and the like. And, even on truly significant items such as faculty-student relationships, Vietnam teach-ins, the multi-versity, etc., perhaps 10 percent of the student body carries an interest load and the other 90 percent could seem to care less.”

And to the administration, Marcus said: “Remember that this is the University of Massachusetts. Several years ago, it appeared that our image was being molded into the shape of Michigan State University. More recently, I’ve heard that we are being patterned after the University of Michigan or Harvard or other schools. The fact is that we are a university in Amherst in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We have our own unique problems, and we should develop along our own unique lines. We can borrow what we consider good from other schools, but in the last analysis we must develop in our own way, even if it means breaking with some of the more sacred academic traditions.”

“Joe’s commitment was all-ecompassing,” said his colleague and friend, Harvey Friedman. “His commitment to community was more significant than anyone else I have ever known. That commitment included the university, the Jewish community, the School of Engineering, the town, and even the armed services.”

Joseph Marcus first came to the university in 1948 as an instructor in engineering. He stayed for 36 years, serving as professor, assistant dean, associate dean, special assistant to the chancellor, and acting dean of engineering. A two-inch thick sheaf of notices and clips on file in the public information office under Joseph Marcus reveals a vision and compassion that was central in the transition of the university from a small state college to a major institution.

At a retirement dinner last year, George Marston, who was Dean of Engineering from 1947 to 1963, recalled Marcus’ role in the rapid growth of the school. “Joe Marcus was a chemical engineer,” Marston said, “but he taught civil, mechanical, and chemical engineering.  We soon learned that he was a very capable administrator… He’s an exceptional administrator.  He likes people. I think more students have turned to Joe for counseling and advice over the years than have ever gone to any of the counseling centers on campus.”

Over the years, Marcus initiated and helped expand programs for women in engineering, programs for minorities, technical training abroad for students, transfer programs with community colleges, scholarships, and alumni events. He was principal investigator for three Atomic Energy Commission grants to the university. He directed institutes for high school science teachers, and served on a number of state and national committees and boards in engineering and education.

From 1963 to 1967, Marcus served as preceptor for Emily Dickinson House at Orchard Hill, staunchly promoting and protecting the concept of residential colleges where intellectual life and social life are brought together in dormitories.

In 1970, Marcus served as special assistant to the chancellor and helped to develop the long-range plan for the Amherst campus. It was Marcus, in fact, along with his friend Irving Howards of the Political Science Department, who designed the present organization of a president residing in Boston, with chancellors for each campus, and vice-chancellors for academic affairs, finance, student affairs, and development.

“Joe Marcus was one of the real devoted people to this campus. He never turned down an assignment,” said former Chancellor Oswald Tippo. “He was an excellent teacher, an excellent counselor, he loved students – hundreds of students over the years have told me how they were discouraged or not doing well and Joe pulled them through.”

Beyond the teaching, counseling, and administration, Marcus commanded the naval reserve officer’s unit on campus, he directed Hillel before the campus had a rabbi, and helped establish the Amherst Jewish Community. He worked with Marjorie Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s wife, on the board of directors of the National Yiddish Book Exchange, and he directed the exchange toward national prominence from 1982 to 1984. He also helped launch the Yiddish book collection in the university library, which, now named for him, holds 15,000 volumes and is ranked as a national reference center for Jewish history.

To most of the university community, however, Joseph Marcus is remembered riding his bicycle across campus, stopping to chat for a few minutes with friends, offering an opinion on a university issue.

At the memorial service for Marcus, Rabbi Lander called him a “no nonsense man.” He had strong opinions on the importance of teaching over research, ethics in science, and the role of the university.

Marcus envisioned as far back as the 1960s the kind of video telecommunications links that are only now being adopted campus wide. With Friedman, he headed the university broadcasting council, which controlled the license for what is now Channel 57. Marcus’ vision, some of which is realized, some of which was lost in funding debates, and some of which will some day happen, included videotape instruction for engineers in Boston, a wide-screen link-up across six lecture halls to allow students access to the university’s best lecturers, and telephone and video link-ups with community and state college campuses.

Joseph Marcus lived his life, according to his friends, with tremendous commitment, compassion, and a sense of humor.

“These arguments which I have proposed at the expense of my own neck,” he told the university community in his 1965 convocation address, “have been presented in hope of improving the student’s lot.”

For his work and hope, the university awarded Marcus the Chancellor’s Medal for “exemplary and extraordinary service” in 1984. In addition to the Metawampe Award, Marcus also received the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award in the 1960s. In his honor, Engineering Building East was last month designated Joseph S. Marcus Hall by the university trustees.

“Joe Marcus will be missed,” said Dean James John of the College of Engineering,” not just by the university community which he served so selflessly for so long, but by the hundreds who had come in contact with him and came to highly regard his advice and counsel.”

“It is appropriate now for the university community to pause and reflect upon the value of this man’s life,” said Chancellor Joseph Duffey. “For over 35 years he helped to make this institution a source of pride for those who work and study here. His career was a model for us all; he showed us truly how to care.” (September 2010)