Skip to main content
Family playing violin in living room

Walter Westman: A brother's recollections

16 December 2019
by Robert S. Westman
The annual Walter Westman lecture is an ongoing tribute to the ideals of a pathfinding scientist and IH alumnus. Robert Westman reflects on his brother Walter’s upbringing and personal life, revealing some of the diverse influences that stimulated his intellectual and ethical outlook on the world.

Walter Emil Westman was born on November 5, 1945. As Walt's older brother by four years, I share some personal family recollections that I hope will provide a more intimate sense of who he was, and how he came to leave a unique mark on International House during his brief studies at Macquarie University from 1966-67.

These reflections may also help to illuminate what is better known about his public persona – his international reputation in plant ecology, and his founding of an organization in 1980 to recognize and support gay and lesbian scientists in the fight against homophobia.

Learning was highly valued by both our parents, but in ways that reflected their quite different life possibilities. Our mother, born Claire Berkowitz, graduated from New York University in 1934. This was early during the financially difficult years of the great depression, when many American universities still maintained admissions quotas for Jews. Neither of her parents had gone to college. Her father emigrated to the United States around 1905 from a small town in Hungary. Claire possessed genuine literary talent that, in today’s more liberated era for women, might have seen her become a writer or even a journalist. She enjoyed classical music and played the piano with some ability. She was also a highly skilled typist (140 words per minute), worked in business offices in New York City and in later years taught typing in our high school. She frequently discussed Walt's writing assignments with him and undoubtedly helped him develop his own style. At our mother's instigation, Walt kept a diary from the age of nine, and he sustained this practice throughout his life, often as a tool for self-reflection. Reading his daily entries, interesting and sometimes painful as it has been, has momentarily brought him back to life for me.

Our father was a man of considerable native intelligence but with little formal education. He arrived in the United States in 1922, two years before Congress passed the Immigration Act that sharply lowered the number of people admitted to the country from Asia, southern and eastern Europe and Russia. He spent his working life in the textile industry, mostly as a manufacturer of women's gloves, later as a leather salesman. He sometimes joked, ruefully, that he had graduated from the 'school of hard knocks'. Under more favourable circumstances he might have enjoyed some kind of professional career, but his own childhood was scarred by very serious deprivations and losses.

Born Joseph Wieselmann (1901), our father lost both his parents before the age of ten. He had no memory of his mother, who died when he was about two. His father disappeared on a journey in the Carpathian Mountains somewhere between the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia and Slovakia in east-central Europe. Our father spoke Czech and, when he arrived in New York City in 1922, immigration officials listed his birthplace as Prague, Czechoslovakia (although Czechoslovakia did not exist as a national entity before 1918).

“Australia represented for him a kind of liberation. It was ‘far away’ in more than one sense. It was a chance to learn about himself beyond the classroom.”

When we were young, he told us stories of growing up in a small town south of Prague called Krásná Hora. These memories of his life in the village left a deep impression. One of the stories he told was of his friendship with a young man named Emil Hecht who, in the year or so before the 1917 Russian revolution, proclaimed his enthusiasm for Lenin and communism. The relationship with Emil left a deep, life-long impression on our orphaned father, for whom Marx and Engels were virtually sanctified figures. Walt's middle name was given in memory of Emil, who had been gassed by the Nazis three years before Walt's birth.

Our father also remembered listening outside the window of a house on Friday nights as the mayor and three other residents played musical quartets, an experience that inspired him to learn the violin and later to encourage Walt to take up the instrument. I well remember, however, Walt's dislike of the admonitions (and occasional blows) that accompanied our father's autodidactic pedagogical technique: "No! Hold the bow straight! No, not that way! You have to practice more!" Notwithstanding this heavy-handed approach, Walt persisted and became quite accomplished. It was characteristic of him that, even under criticism, he could maintain some distance while observing his own feelings. In 1966, he took his violin with him to International House and on a later trip to the Fiji Islands. Upon his death he had left it to be sold by a music shop in Berkeley. With the proceeds of the sale, his nephew Aaron acquired a viola and has since become a professional classical musician.

Returning to the U.S. from Australia in August 1967, Walt stopped in Prague and made contact with a family that our father had frequently mentioned. Walt then somehow made his way to Krásná Hora. He found a very little town built around a square and, thanks to its size, had no trouble finding someone to direct him to the tiny house where our father had once lived, on the second floor just above the local post office. There he met a woman (Fanča Porges) who remembered our father well – indeed, her parents had taken him into their family sometime around 1914 after his grandfather brought him to the town and left him there, never to return. This was the first time that we learned that our father had not been born in Czechoslovakia. In fact, he had been born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (Delyatyn/Oslav Bily), in the foothills of the Carpathians. When we asked him about it later, he had no memory of the language of his childhood. Walt's sleuthing had uncovered some key facts, previously unknown to us, all of which he wrote down in his diary – much as he kept careful notes of his botanical expeditions. And he related his discoveries to me quite soon afterward in London, where I had just arrived to work on my doctorate in the history of science.

Walt's and my educational opportunities were incomparably better than those of our parents. In the 1960s, we were fortunate beneficiaries of the opening-up of universities to previously excluded social groups. The main challenge we faced prior to university was that, as our father’s business declined, we were required to move frequently and were thus forced to leave behind old friends, making new ones in different neighbourhoods and changing schools often.

In late 1949 we moved to Puerto Rico, where our father had opened a glove-making factory. It was there that our last name was changed to Westman, with the intention of offering some protection against the antisemitism that our parents had experienced in their own lives. Between 1952 and 1955, Walt attended the Commonwealth School, a newly founded private school in Puerto Rico that offered instruction in English. His teachers could not say enough good things about him, and his grades were consistently at the top of his class – a pattern that would continue throughout his subsequent education. Furthermore, living on a lush tropical island stimulated his early interest in plants (I just preferred to eat them). In the fourth grade, I recall that he conducted a science project that involved hydroponics – growing plants in highly oxygenated water. I believe this was the beginning of his interest in botany. By 1955, however, the glove factory venture collapsed and we returned to the U.S. For the rest of the decade, the family was downwardly mobile.

In 1962, the year that Walt applied to college, he was at the top of his high school class in New Rochelle, New York. Our parents were broke and their marriage was on the rocks. Swarthmore College was the premier liberal arts college in the country and, thanks to his stellar academic record, Walt was able to win enough scholarship support to escape the family's sinking ship. By the time he graduated in 1966 and left for Macquarie University, Australia represented for him a kind of liberation. It was 'far away' in more than one sense. It was a chance to learn about himself beyond the classroom, where he had long been successful. He had found a new forum in which to meet friends, and to freely explore his own inner world as well as a different part of the natural world. In Australia, he also began to forge his political identity as an environmentalist and to wrestle with new questions including, most urgently, whether to stay in Australia or to return and face the military draft and a war in which he did not believe.

June 22, 1967: "I have been thinking all day today, since last night about whether I should become an Australian citizen or return to the U.S. By staying in Australia, I would neatly evade any worry about the draft. But I do want to go to Cornell. Finally, I decided to take the risk of returning to the U.S., gambling on the idea that I will be allowed to complete my Ph.D. and that I will get [classified] either 1-0, or will appeal till I'm past 26, or will join the Peace Corps, or emigrate, renouncing citizenship. I should be able to do any of those things in an emergency anyway."

June 25, 1967: "Saw 'A Man for All Seasons.' True, it was not subtle in its point. But the point was good. That what you think is right for you, [you] should do. Of course, in my case, it is difficult for me to know what is right. But I promise myself that I won't say I didn't think about it. I've tried to think of the right answer."

July 1, 1967: "Another possibility: My social standards and thought say 'Go back. Work hard. Do good for society.'"

And, he did.

Robert S. Westman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of California, San Diego