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Death Notice Guestbook

Former Pitt chancellor Wesley W. Posvar dies

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wesley W. Posvar, a fighter pilot turned college leader who helped transform the University of Pittsburgh from a struggling regional campus to a nationally known center for research, died late Friday of a heart attack after swimming with his grandchildren. He was 75.

On May 9, 2000, the University of Pittsburgh honored its 15th chancellor by renaming the Forbes Quandrangle 'Wesley W. Posvar Hall,' and the retired leader was on that day again the center of attention on the Oakland campus. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

An only child from the Midwest whose boyhood dream was to fly, Mr. Posvar rose through the Air Force ranks to become a brigadier general, serving first as a test pilot, and later as a strategic planner in the Pentagon, a military academy professor and a Vietnam combat flier. A Rhodes Scholar and an expert on international affairs, Mr. Posvar also counseled several White House administrations on foreign and domestic matters.

But Mr. Posvar was best known locally for his 24 years as Pitt's chancellor, the second-longest tenure in the university's history.

When he arrived in 1967, the once-private campus was so deeply in debt that its leaders had sought a state bailout and agreed to become a public campus. Mr. Posvar put its finances in the black, then set out to identify programs where a regional university could gain national and international prominence.

In part because Mr. Posvar was fascinated by other parts of the world -- he visited more than 100 countries during his life -- he resolved that Pitt should become more global.

He created the Center for International Studies, which gained national recognition and today supports teaching and research efforts from Latin America to Asia. He also made hiring decisions that helped put other parts of campus on the map.

Mr. Posvar lured from the Ivy League Dr. Thomas Detre, a psychiatrist and administrator who became an architect of Pitt's internationally renowned medical center and transplant hub. Mr. Posvar's tenure also saw the hiring of Johnny Majors, who three years later coached Pitt's football team to a national championship in 1976.

As word of Mr. Posvar's death spread yesterday, he was remembered for his devotion both to the campus and to the region where he lived. According to his family, Mr. Posvar had been swimming with his grandchildren in a pool at Rolling Rock Country Club in Westmoreland County Friday afternoon when he appeared to suffer a heart attack.

He was resuscitated briefly by lifeguards and paramedics but died en route to Latrobe Hospital around 6 p.m., said his daughter Lisa Rossi.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg yesterday recalled the indelible mark left by the school's former leader.

"Wes Posvar was an extraordinary university leader, an absolutely devoted champion of Western Pennsylvania and a warm and caring human being," he said. "He will be sorely missed by his many friends and admirers all over the world."

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette three months before he died, Mr. Posvar attributed some of his success to what he called "a competitive compulsion."

That was evident in his dropping golf, a sport he could not master, and in his need as a young military pilot to prove himself worthy by performing dangerous maneuvers the first time he took the controls of a jet.

"If he can't excel in it immediately, he wants no part of it. That includes bridge, which I adore but don't play because he didn't want to sit down and be the idiot because he would have to learn," said Mr. Posvar's wife, Mildred, an internationally known opera singer.

The competitive trait also was apparent in his tendency late in his life to repeatedly drop into conversations the fact that he was first in his class, both in high school and at the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated from West Point in 1946 as the top cadet in a class of 875.

"I believe in quality and achievement," Mr. Posvar said. "As a university president, why wouldn't I?"

The Pentagon and the Ivory Tower are vastly different worlds, and Mr. Posvar chose a strange time to jump between them. Student unrest and anti-war sentiment were growing on campuses in 1967, when Mr. Posvar arrived with bright red hair, thick eyebrows and a background that included 50 combat missions in Vietnam. Faculty who doubted his academic credentials were struck by this man with a photographic memory who could engage them in debate on complex topics.

Mr. Posvar had, by his own description, a "radically liberal" streak that gave him credibility with campus dissenters. He felt deeply about affirmative action, those who knew him said. Though he was sometimes targeted by campus demonstrators, Mr. Posvar nevertheless described protest as a legitimate part of a student's campus experience.

With a laugh, Mr. Posvar recalled how early in his tenure he posted bail for a group of students who he said were unfairly arrested for creating a disturbance outside a dormitory.

"I didn't have any cash. I had to borrow it from the police chief," Mr. Posvar said.

Psychology professor James Holland, who organized campus protests as a young faculty member during Mr. Posvar's early years, developed an admiration for him.

"He managed always to have a kind of finesse," Holland said.

Not everyone on campus was enamored of his military-honed style of getting things done.

Mr. Posvar could be blunt and impatient, and he struck some faculty as arrogant and single-minded. The same person who childhood friends described as outgoing and friendly to a fault developed a reputation on campus for being reserved and less than gregarious.

The last months of his tenure were marred by a faculty vote of no-confidence over his management style. Later, a controversy blew up over his $3.3 million retirement package, and the matter received the attention of the state Legislature.

"I've never had anything quite like this before," Mr. Posvar told an interviewer in 1990, clearly stunned by the faculty vote.

The retirement package included a $1.3 million annuity to which Mr. Posvar contributed up to 8 percent of his salary, he wrote in a letter to the state Legislature at the time. Each dollar was matched by a Pitt contribution.

He did not contribute to another $2 million annuity, which he said was given to him upon retirement in lieu of pay increases he did not receive during his tenure. The package also included a continuation of a portion of his $285,000 salary, which amounted to $201,000 per year for life.

The controversy about the package and the way it was conveyed made headlines. But in his interview in May with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Posvar, his hand pounding the side of an easy chair in his Squirrel Hill home, insisted that his retirement package was wrongly characterized.

"I contributed from my own savings every year a big proportion of my pay," he said. "That was all my savings investment."

Still, the controversies could not erase a legacy built up over decades.

"I'm amazed he stayed ahead of the enemy for 23 years," said Alec Stewart, dean of the honors college that was created during Mr. Posvar's tenure. "It's taxing to be running a major university. You are always making decisions, and there are people who see this in terms of winning and losing."

"He understood the difference between being big and being good, and he wanted to be good," Stewart said. "Excellence is what it was about. You could count on him to be first out of the foxhole for that kind of a cause."

Away from campus, Mr. Posvar was no less driven.

"He couldn't sit still," remembered daughter Rossi. When he would attend the symphony or a performance by his wife, Mildred, Mr. Posvar sometimes would slump in his chair with his eyes closed, or pen notes to himself.

Yet late at night in the chancellor's residence, still in his dress pants, shirt and tie, a man obsessed by his work would find freedom from it all by cranking the volume on some classical music.

"He would lie on the floor and just get lost in the music," his daughter said. "He wanted the music to totally consume him."

Mr. Posvar was no opera buff, his wife said.

"He used to tease me and say that the singing ruined the music," she said. "I knew he was joking."

"If anything, his greatest passion was the world," she said. "He just wanted to see and experience every part of every niche of this world."

Wesley Wentz Posvar was born on Sept. 14, 1925, in Topeka, Kan. His family moved to Kansas City while he was still an infant, and later spent a couple years in New York City, where Posvar attended kindergarten. Most of his childhood, though, was in Cleveland.

He was raised during his teen-age years by his mother, Marie Wentz, after his father, Vladimir Lester Posvar, a newspaper and wire service reporter, lost work and left Cleveland to find newspaper jobs in Cincinnati and Detroit.

Years later, the couple's marriage soured. Mr. Posvar said he eventually learned that his father had begun a new family in Indiana after World War II.

Mr. Posvar held out hope as a young man that his father might one day rekindle the relationship, and those who knew him said he was troubled as a young adult by the failed marriage. But he spoke in interviews of a loving relationship with his mother and of an admiration for his father's newspaper work and military service. A New York Times photo of the three of them, taken during Mr. Posvar's days at West Point, remained with the younger Mr. Posvar throughout his life.

He visited his father periodically and said they remained close.

"I remember as a small child looking up at his uniforms ," the younger Posvar said, flashing a hint of a smile. "I admired him tremendously."

As a boy, Mr. Posvar was awed by planes. He recalled scaling airport fencing with some friends to get a better look at the air races in Cleveland.

Years later, as an Air Force test pilot, Mr. Posvar savored the feelings of control and independence he got in the cockpit, even as he performed stomach-turning maneuvers in jets that traveled at 300 mph and swooped as low as 50 feet above the ground.

Mr. Posvar's defining adolescent experience was the Boy Scouts, which compensated for the absence of his father and instilled in him values such as achievement and discipline, he said. He also developed strong bonds with older adults, including a high school economics teacher who served as best man at Mr. Posvar's wedding years later in Germany.

In high school, Mr. Posvar was brilliant in the classroom, finishing first in Cleveland's West High Class of 1943 with a near perfect grade score. One classmate said it seemed that Mr. Posvar worried about being labeled as "a brain" and tried hard to be one of the guys. He ran track and cross country and wrestled.

"He had a mind that would sop up things. His mind could work through problems with such great rapidity he had a great jump on everybody," said schoolmate and lifelong friend Bob Shackleton. "He was so superior that he could appear to not be working."

"I knew him because he was president of everything -- the student council and every club he belonged to," joked Mildred Posvar, who attended high school with her future husband but did not date him until years later. "I thought he was going to be president of the United States."

She remembers the first time she saw Mr. Posvar standing outside the school with his mother.

"If you ever saw Wes and his mother, you'd do a double take. Never has a mother and son looked so much alike. They were both redheads. The whole face and everything, they were spitting images of each other," she said.

Had it not been for the start of World War II, Mr. Posvar might have ended up a math or science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offered him a full scholarship. Instead, at 17, he accepted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. He graduated just after the war in 1946 and earned a rating as a pilot.

Mr. Posvar was eventually assigned to the experimental test flight group. His earliest stints were at the Air Proving Ground stations in Alaska and Florida, where he managed to "check out" or become qualified as a pilot in many of the 37 kinds of aircraft he flew, including some of the military's earliest jets.

Mr. Posvar flew "just about every plane the Air Force had. He made that a goal for himself," joked Jack Donahue, who trained with Mr. Posvar as an Air Force pilot and eventually became chairman of Federated Investors Inc.

In the cockpit, Mr. Posvar had an audacious streak.

At Florida's Eglin Air Force Base, several stunned pilots watched in 1947 as Mr. Posvar took off in his first flight in a P-80 jet and, at 250 feet above the ground, performed a slow roll while the plane traveled at 250 mph. The maneuver was forbidden by the Air Force except during air shows.

"I was astounded, to put it mildly," wrote Donald Lopez, deputy director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who followed in a chase plane that day and recounted the stunt in his book, "Fighter Pilot's Heaven."

"Wes knew better, but the sheer exuberance of flying a jet for the first time was too much for his restraint mechanisms," Lopez said.

Mr. Posvar was at Oxford University from 1948 to 1951, studying philosophy, politics and economics as the first Army Air Force officer to become a Rhodes Scholar. During that time, he courted and, in 1950, married Mildred, who was studying and performing in Europe.

He continued to fly, and on a break from school, took part in the 1948 Berlin Airlift, flying coal and potatoes in a C-54.

After Oxford, Mr. Posvar returned to West Point. For the next three years he taught as an assistant professor of social science.

Then, in 1954, Mr. Posvar moved to the Pentagon. He was assigned to a four-member strategic planning group that plotted the Air Force's acquisition programs into the next decade. The group decided what kind of aircraft and weaponry would be obtained and in what number.

"We introduced the first jet fighters. And we introduced the first air defense fighters," Mr. Posvar said. "We also introduced in our planning the first ballistic missiles, the first long-range missiles."

In 1957, Mr. Posvar began a 10-year stay at the Air Force Academy as its first professor of political science. He later chaired the department and headed the social sciences division.

He took a two-year sabbatical and received a master's degree in public administration and a doctorate in political science from Harvard in 1964.

The next year, he spent three months on special assignment as a pilot in Southeast Asia. He flew 50 combat missions in Vietnam in a small single-engine observer plane used to identify Viet Cong locations.

Two years after that, Mr. Posvar came to Pitt, a school close to financial collapse at the close of Chancellor Edward Litchfield's administration.

Under Mr. Posvar, the school's budget grew sevenfold and the number of employees swelled from 7,000 to 12,000. Among the prominent buildings that rose during his tenure were the Law School building, the Biomedical Science Tower and Forbes Quadrangle, which later was renamed Posvar Hall.

The School of Health Related Professions was created during his chancellorship, as was the University Center for Social and Urban Research and the College for Over 60 program.

In 1985, Mr. Posvar signed a preliminary exchange agreement with Cuban universities during the first visit to that country by an American university president in 15 years.

Meanwhile, he continued to play a role in national issues.

Mr. Posvar was the founding chairman of the Federal Emergency Management Advisory Board, where he served for 12 years, and the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology, where he served as a principal advisor to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

He led a special commission on the West Point honor code and advised government officials on foreign intelligence, civil aviation and national emergency telecommunications.

After he retired as chancellor in 1991, Mr. Posvar continued to teach as a professor of international politics and kept an office on the 12th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, overlooking a campus he helped transform. He continued work off campus too, including his role as president of the World Society for Ekistics (the study of human settlements) whose headquarters is in Athens, Greece. Those who watched his tenure as chancellor aren't surprised to see that he remained visible.

"He was somebody who did things," Holland said. "He was not just a coast-along, get-along type."

In addition to his wife of 51 years, Mildred Miller Posvar, and his daughter, Lisa Christina Posvar Rossi, Mr. Posvar is survived by a son, Wesley William Posvar, and a daughter, Margot Marina Posvar Green, all of the Pittsburgh area; a half-brother, Jan Posvar of New York City, and seven grandsons.


Visitation will be today from 7 to 9 p.m. and tomorrow from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at H. Samson Inc. funeral home, 537 N. Neville St. in Oakland. Funeral will be 11 a.m. Tuesday at Calvary Episcopal Church, 315 Shady Ave., in Shadyside.

A memorial service will be held at Pitt at a time and date to be announced.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made either to the University of Pittsburgh Honors College or the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Post-Gazette staff writer Mackenzie Carpenter contributed to this report.

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