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Obituary: Frederick A. Hetzel dies; he led Pitt's press for 30 years

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Frederick A. Hetzel, who guided the University of Pittsburgh Press to national literary distinction during his 30 years as director, died Saturday at 73.

Frederick A. Hetzel in the early 1990s.

Mr. Hetzel, who retired in 1994, died of complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

Under Mr. Hetzel's leadership, the press not only continued its academic publishing but also began to enhance its output of books for general readers.

In 1981, he launched the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The competition is now one of the most prestigious and lucrative in the literary community with its $15,000 prize and publication by the press.

A $1 million endowment in Mr. Hetzel's name from sponsor Drue Heinz, the widow of H.J. Heinz II, in 1996 assured the future of the competition, which recognizes the short story form.

"He was one of the most courageous and talented men I have ever met," Heinz said in a statement released from her London home. "He was a leader but very gentle. He taught me a great deal about how to work with people. He was a great guide, mentor and friend."

"The Heinz Prize was something that Fred paid a lot of attention to," said Ed Ochester, who supervises the competition as well as the Pitt Poetry Series. "The Heinz Prize has thrived ever since, and it was Fred who really decided the parameters that made it so successful.

"When the prize was started, there were relatively few areas that honored short fiction," said Ochester. "The idea was to make the competition a showcase for short stories and I think we accomplished that."

Mr. Hetzel also oversaw the establishment of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize in 1981. Named for his predecessor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, the competition recognizes a poet's first collection with a $5,000 prize and publication.

While Mr. Hetzel acknowledged that he did not read poetry, he gave his full support to the Pitt Poetry Series, one of the largest publishers of verse in America, and the Starrett prize, Ochester said.

"He was a reader of everything but poetry and he was quite open about it," Ochester said. "But he cared about things being done well and he gave his full support to poetry."

When former Pitt Chancellor Wesley Posvar complained to Mr. Hetzel about the press' large poetry list, he would always defend it, Ochester added.

"He knew that our poetry had a real excellence, and that's what he cared about. He gave it the same care and intelligence he brought to everything he did..

"Fred was a gentleman of the old school," Ochester said. "He knew a great deal about a great many things, but he also knew what he didn't know. Then he would seek experts and get advice.

"It was that kind of care and modesty in the best sense that made him very effective as a publisher."

A native of Connellsville, Mr. Hetzel was a student of Western Pennsylvania history, an interest that is reflected in the variety of nonfiction books he published.

Among the titles were reprints of Andrew Wall's biography of Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon's memoirs, but the press' major contributions included the original books, "Don't Call Me Boss: David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh's Renaissance Mayor" by Michael P. Weber and "And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry" by John Hoerr, both published in 1988.

In comments in 1997, Mr. Hetzel said he was most proud of "And the Wolf Finally Came," considered one of the most exhaustive studies on the steel industry's demise.

"It took courage to publish this book since neither the steel industry nor the union liked it," he said.

"Everyone in Western Pennsylvania owes Fred Hetzel a debt," said Hoerr, a former Business Week reporter, "because without him, we would not have as much history of the region in print.

"And the important thing is that the books Fred published weren't always about the rich and powerful. He wasn't afraid to tackle sensitive issues, including labor relations."

Among the press' best-sellers are "Out of This Furnace" by Thomas Bell, a novel of the immigrant experience in industrial Pittsburgh initially published in the 1940s and which Mr. Hetzel republished in 1976, and "Pittsburgh Then and Now" by Arthur Smith, a coffee-table sized book of photographs.

Peter Oresick was Mr. Hetzel's assistant at the press when those books were published and calls him "Pittsburgh's greatest publisher. His output of hundreds of quality books over 30 years is unparalleled."

"No one read more than Fred Hetzel," added Oresick, vice president and director of technical information at the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation. "He read before work, at work and after work, he toted home his oversized canvas bag a stack of books and manuscripts to read. His lifetime of reading made him the consummate generalist."

Oresick said Mr. Hetzel's reading made him "a great writer. Though he published little under his name, his professional prose was always clear, concise and often witty. ... He was a master of the author rejection letter."

Catherine Marshall, former associate director and editor in chief at the press for 20 years under Mr. Hetzel, called him "an old-fashioned editor. He was very nurturing of his authors.

"He also expected the best from his staff and he usually got it," she said, adding, "Working with Fred was stimulating, challenging and a lot of fun."

Among Mr. Hetzel's other revivals of out-of-print classics were Marcia Davenport's novel of Pittsburgh, "Valley of Decision" and her autobiography, "Too Strong for Fantasy."

"Fred Hetzel made enormous contributions to the growth and stature of the University of Pittsburgh Press," said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg yesterday.

"He approached his work with both high professional standards and a warm human touch. He enjoyed great respect, here in Pittsburgh and around the country, and he will be sorely missed."

Pitt Provost James Maher, who oversaw the press operation, said Mr. Hetzel "developed the university press to be one of the country's visible publishers of scholarly monographs."

When Mr. Hetzel took over the press, it was publishing about 20 books a year and had a backlist (books still in print) of about 100 titles. When he retired, the press was averaging 50 titles a year and had a backlist of more than 500.

Mr. Hetzel held degrees from Washington and Jefferson College and the University of Virginia and was an associate editor at the Institute for Early American History and Culture before coming to Pitt in 1961.

He was awarded a Bronze Star for his Army service in the Korean War. He had served on the boards of the Mendelssohn Choir, the Pittsburgh Dance Council and Winchester-Thurston School

His memberships included Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Bibliophiles.

Mr. Hetzel is survived by his widow; Nancy; three daughters, Jean Hetzel, Emily Hetzel and Jennifer Hetzel Gear; a son, Frederick A. Hetzel Jr.; and seven grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today in Shadyside Presbyterian Church. Burial will follow in Homewood Cemetery.

The family suggests contributions to the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville, 275 S. Pittsburgh St., Connellsville, PA 15425.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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