Professor Lawrence H. Fuchs, who taught at Brandeis for 50 years, from 1952 until 2002, died on March 17, 2013. For me . . .and for so many others at Brandeis and well beyond . . Larry was a mentor and a friend. A full catalogue of Larry’s accomplishments as a scholar, as a player in national politics, and as an activist can be found in the BrandeisNOW tribute published soon after his death and in his New York Times obituary. These are my more personal reflections about the man and his part in the University that he loved.
Larry Fuchs was a skilled and inveterate arranger of human affairs, but I didn’t know this when I first met him in 1992, when I was a candidate for a position at Brandeis. The word that came to mind when he first squeezed my hand was “avuncular.” He treated me with such genuine warmth, humor, and goodwill that I scarcely knew that I was being subtly but distinctly manipulated. There was a position open in mid-level academic administration, and Larry in his wisdom had decided that this was a good match for me and for Brandeis. But it was going to require some heavy lifting . . .which in characteristic fashion Larry managed without betraying any effort at all. First, he had to persuade this not-quite-newly-minted Ph.D. that a position in academic administration would be bracing and rewarding. And on a separate track, he had to persuade the provost, future president Jehuda Reinharz, that he should hire to run a university division a young guy whose previous experience with budgets was a ledger in pencil kept in a desk drawer in a grimy closet in a Boston public high school. I had no idea until years later how much shuttle diplomacy was involved.
By the time I arrived at Brandeis, Larry’s imprint was everywhere. It is no exaggeration to say that no single faculty member had done more to create the institutional culture of the university.
The qualities of Brandeis that so many people labor to define today . . .Larry simply lived and breathed naturally.
The integration of excellence in scholarship with engagement in public life. Who did this better than Larry, moving seamlessly between Waltham and the Philippines and Washington . . . bringing his penetrating analyses of American politics and diversity to his work in the Peace Corps and immigration . . . and then enriching his scholarship and his teaching with his experiences in politics and overseas.
The Brandeis commitment to the Jewish people, on the one hand, and a commitment to diversity in all of its forms, on the other. Other people have found in these twin commitments a source of tension and angst. For Larry embracing the University’s Jewish identity in the glorious context of American multiculturalism was not merely natural but a source of pleasure and inspiration.
Intellectual explorations across the boundaries of geography and disciplines. Larry wrote and taught that way – and founded American Studies on along these lines – long before the rest of the University codfied this approach in thousands of pages of statements and grant proposals.
And then there were the stories . . . For every moment in Brandeis history Larry had a tale. Larry’s stories were succinct nuggets of human ego and error — but never with the intention of cutting his subjects down to size. Abe Sachar, Eleanor Roosevelt, Max Lerner – the humor in Larry’s stories somehow enlarged and ennobled them, even as he painted them as flesh-and-blood individuals with understandable human weaknesses.
The Brandeis that Larry loved was a glorious idea, a monument to Jewish tradition, the intellectual life, and the American kaleidoscope that he so ably described. But the Brandeis that Larry loved was also a comically flawed place, rife with insecurities and outsized egos and politics played as a bloodsport.
Well, who here would be surprised? Everyone who knew Larry knew the sheer joy that he took in politics . . at every level. He made a mark in national politics, of course, through his association and important work with people like Stephen Solarz and Barbara Jordan and several Kennedys. But he also had a keen appreciation of politics at a more local level as well.
Politics for Larry wasn’t something inherently smarmy or petty. People, of course, could be smarmy and petty . . . but politics itself was both an essential contest of ideas AND the essential cultivation of personal relationships. It’s natural that aside from politics Larry’s other great passion – and scholarly subject — was family. In both the public sphere and the private, he understood that working intensively on the quality of conversations and relationships was what mattered.
Larry’s legacy is everywhere at Brandeis today – not just in American Studies, but across the university in the qualities I have described already. Thousands of students today benefit from his lasting influence, even if they do not know his name. But for a few 21st century Brandeis students, the influence has been personal and direct, a passing of the torch to the next generation. It was a day of immense pleasure for me when I was able to tell Larry that my oldest son Ben had declared American Studies as his Brandeis major. And when my second son Eli was accepted into the Peace Corps, Larry managed in a shaky hand to sign a copy of his 1968 book, Those Peculiar Americans: The Peace Corps and American National Character, for Eli’s advance reading.
At the last visit that my wife Maggie and I paid to Larry in Orchard cove – just last month – Larry was very weak. He couldn’t sit up. He spoke in a barely audible whisper. His attention span was short. He dearly missed his wife Betty, who passed away late last year. But his mind and heart were firm. I held his hand and showed him photos of Eli in the remote village in Senegal where the Peace Corps had placed him. Larry was not able to talk much, but as I showed him the photos on my iPhone, he pulled me towards him, squeezed my hand, and whispered, close to my ear “Be proud of him.” That was Larry. Not for him the more conventional formulation, “You must be proud of him.” No, Larry’s message was a command, an injunction, delivered gently but with urgency . . .BE proud of him . . . as if in reminder to take absolutely nothing for granted, not even something so conventional as parental pride. It was Larry’s reminder that when it comes to human relationships, everything matters, and that everything good requires not just sentiment and ritual but effort and practice and thought and dedication and love . . . in public life, in private life, in every squeeze of the hand.