Eulogy for Professor Harry Levin
by Karen Nakamura (Cornell BA 1993)
I first met Professor Levin as freshman, when I took his upper level course, the Social Psychology of Language. I vividly remember three things about him when he walked into the classroom on the first day: his stern face, his crutches, and his incredible mind.
Later, I stopped by his office to see if I could take his class even though I didn't have all the requirements and I was only a freshman. His stem face softened as we talked, my thoughts about his physical disabilities faded as I discovered one of the most brilliant and receptive minds at Cornell University.
Professor Levin believed that each individual should be judged by his or her own merits and not by any external social indicators such as age, sex, or social class. True to form, he let me take his class, but didn't expect any less of me than he did his fourth year students. Rather than prejudicing and capping my abilities, he gave me free rein to the fields of academia.
A week before he passed away on May 31, 1993, Professor Levin heard me give my defense as an honors student in the College Scholar Program - a program that as a Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences he had developed and nurtured. The College Scholar Program is a culmination of the belief that each student, if given total academic freedom, could develop a curricula for herself or himself that would be both broad and deep - and ultimately more challenging and fulfilling that any core-course based curricula could ever be.
I only recently found out - through his obituary - that thirty-odd years ago, Professor Levin was a pioneer in redefining the goals of higher education, in inspiring students to take a broad range of courses and to love what they studied. As I look back now, that was implicit in everything he taught and showed me. In an age of specialization and career-based education, Professor Levin was a Renaissance man.
Professor Levin's door in Uris Hall was always open for students. His mind was always open for new thoughts and new ideas. I always enjoyed being able to go to Uris Hall and enter a debate with Professor Levin over one subject or another. Professor Levin's focus and his depth of field were amazing. If he didn't know much about a subject, he would inquire about it with vigour. Professor Levin kept asking me about the books that I mentioned in my thesis because he wanted to get a broader perspective about a subject he didn't know much about, but wanted to learn more.
Death always brings to close so many unfulfilled wishes. I regret that I didn't take advantage of Professor Levin's open door more. Although ever since I met him, his body was frail, his mind was always so energetic that I could never imagine him passing away. There are still so many comments that he made in conversations or on my thesis that I would like to ask him about. I've only discovered the answers to some of the many questions he had asked me.
At his memorial service, I learned more about the man who was my teacher, advisor, and friend. I learned that he was a man who loved his family dearly - the sadness and loss in the faces of his son and granddaughter spoke of their feelings towards him. I learned that he was active in the community - a vital force in the construction of the Science Center downtown, among other projects. I learned that not only had he helped the careers of many students such as myself through his advice and warm support, but that many professors had become equally as indebted to him.
The world has lost a brilliant mind, his family a dear father and grandparent, Cornell a valuable professor and former dean, and we all lost a dear friend. In his stead, Professor Levin left himself in the lives of many people. I see his warmth towards his family in his son, I see his compassion towards students reflected in the professors he touched, and I see his drive for a diverse, intense, and exciting education in the students whose lives at Cornell he had helped guide.
New York Times Orbituary
Harry Levin, Dean And Researcher, 68; Led Project Literacy
4 June 1993
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
Harry Levin, former dean of the Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences, died on Sunday at Tompkins Community Hospital in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 68 and lived in Ithaca.
His wife, Deborah, said the cause was heart failure.
Professor Levin was a researcher known for his studies of the psychology of reading. He was the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Psychology and had been a member of the Cornell faculty since 1955. He was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1974 to 1978 and chairman of the psychology department from 1966 to 1973.
In the late 1960's, he was the director of a federally financed research project at Cornell called Project Literacy. The purpose of the study was to examine the relationship between reading and learning. Studying Speech Styles
The project was completed in 1968 and recommended a nationwide revision in curriculums for teaching reading to adults and children. The findings were summarized in "The Psychology of Reading" (M.I.T. Press, 1974), written with Professor Levin's collaborator in the studies, Eleanor J. Gibson, a Cornell psychologist.
His later work focused on the social psychology of language. The studies showed how people adjusted their style of speech in different social contexts.
He was born in Baltimore. He served in the Army from 1944 to 1946 and earned a B.A. from the University of Maryland in 1948. He received an M.A. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1951, both from the University of Michigan.
Before he retired from Cornell in 1990, he was a visiting professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 and at Harvard University from 1978 to 1979.
Besides his wife of 47 years, the former Deborah Stern, he is survived by two daughters, Lynn Lederer of Madison, Wis., and Rebecca, of Baltimore; a son, David, of Evanston, Ill., and three granddaughters.