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Posvar eulogized as 'agent for social change'

Pitt ex-chancellor broke down racial and social barriers

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

His grandson called him "a titan."

An academic dean at the University of Pittsburgh marveled at this "renaissance man for the ages."

But some of the 450 people who mourned Wesley Posvar yesterday said the truest measure of his success lay not in such tributes, or even in what he did for the university he helped to rescue. Rather, it was his passion for breaking down racial and social barriers that set Pitt's 15th chancellor apart.

Mildred Posvar, second from left, widow of the former University of Pittsburgh chancellor, is comforted by her daughter, Lisa Rossi, left, as the casket is carried to a hearse after yesterday's funeral service at Calvary Episcopal Church. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"When all is said and done, Wesley Wentz Posvar would probably best wish to be remembered not as a Rhodes Scholar, a brigadier general or a distinguished chancellor of a renowned university," said the Rev. Harold T. Lewis, rector of the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, who delivered the funeral sermon for a man who was all of those things.

Rather, Lewis said, Posvar would want to be known as "an agent for social change." That was true, he said, whether it was listening to student demonstrators in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s or seeing to it that blacks and other minorities on campus received equal treatment.

"He was a genius who never lost the common touch," Lewis said. "He was, as a friend has described him, a fighter pilot trapped in the body of a scholar."

So it went for 90 minutes in a service that touched the two worlds in which Posvar lived. There was an Air Force honor guard and a rendition of Pitt's alma mater. There was talk of Posvar's days at West Point and of how he infused his own passion for international studies and racial equity into the campus he led for 24 years.

It was a litany of achievement that would have made Posvar proud, if a bit impatient. After all, some of the mourners said afterward, the former chancellor always preferred brevity.

The 95-year-old church where Posvar worshipped is just up the road from Pitt. Among those who crowded into its oak pews and endured near 90-degree heat were county Chief Executive Jim Roddey, a former campus trustee, and former Pitt football coach Johnny Majors, who was hired by Posvar and coached the school's football team to a national championship three years later in 1976.

Roddey and others paid their respects to Posvar's family, including Mildred, his wife of 51 years, who dabbed at tears and embraced those who passed her front row seat.

"There's no way to explain what he meant to me and my family and my life," Majors said outside the church. "I've never had a greater leader that I had more respect for."

Roddey recalled years of contributions by Posvar and said he had an extraordinary grasp of the challenges facing the Pittsburgh region. He had just asked Posvar last week to serve on a panel to get more air cargo into the region.

"We will miss you, general. We will miss you, chancellor," Roddey said. "We will miss you, old friend."

Posvar was a combat pilot in Vietnam and a Pentagon planner who rose through the Air Force ranks to become a brigadier general. He died at the age of 75 Friday of a heart attack after swimming with his grandchildren at a pool at the Rolling Rock Club in Westmoreland County.

As the second longest-serving chancellor in Pitt's history, Posvar is credited with transforming a struggling regional school. When Posvar arrived from the Air Force in 1967, the school was so deep in debt it had sought a state bailout and agreed to become public.

By the time he left in 1991, it had become a nationally known center for research and offered a range of programs started under Posvar, from its Center for International Studies to its honors college and to various endeavors in its vast medical hub.

Shortly before yesterday's service began, a six-member honor guard from Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., lifted the flag-draped casket bearing Posvar's body and carried it into the Indiana limestone church. Standing behind them in silence were honorary pallbearers, including seven Posvar grandchildren, among them Wesley Fishwick Posvar, 17, who composed a poem titled "Granddaddy."

"You knew everything about the sun, moon and stars and far away lands," the poem read in part. "Even at 75 your mind was full of energy and youth. Nobody was more down to earth.

"I salute you."

David Epperson, who is retiring after 29 years as dean of Pitt's social work school, said Posvar believed that the university could not achieve its potential without becoming more diverse.

"He began appointing people of color in areas where there had never been any," he said. "Three academic deans, vice chancellor for student affairs, vice provost who later became the provost, director of public safety, director of the band, assistant athletic director and the first endowed chair, who was a Mellon Professor."

Lewis, in his sermon, recalled being told by a black faculty member about the time Posvar was offered membership in an organization that did not allow blacks as members.

"He refused to join under such circumstances and proposed to his black colleague that they should be proposed for membership together," Lewis said. "Yet again, Posvar pushed the envelope; yet again he flew in the face of convention; yet again he challenged the mores of a town that for so long had missed the boat when it came to race relations.

"And yet again, Wesley Wentz Posvar prevailed."

Both the former chancellor and the faculty member were admitted.

Posvar will be buried Friday with full military honors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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