Obituary: Jerold M. Starr / West Virginia University professor who worked to right wrongs
May 12, 1941 - July 13, 2012
July 14, 2012 4:00 AM
Jerold M. Starr
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a Jewish boy growing up in the 1940s and '50s in the mostly working-class, gentile neighborhoods of Detroit, Jerold M. Starr knew about being the stranger, the outsider looking in.
His parents divorced, he moved often during his early years, making that feeling of being marginalized a central early experience that helped foster a compassion for others and a desire for justice. Those tenets would shape his intellect, his goals and his work for the rest of his life.
Among his many projects -- from crafting a curriculum to teach middle school through college students about the Vietnam War, to trying to reform public broadcasting, to writing books and plays -- Mr. Starr always paid attention to the underdog, his wife, Judy Starr, said.
"He's always been a social activist," Mrs. Starr said. "Wherever he found a need or a lack of attention to something that was important, he always pursued it."
Mr. Starr, a former sociology professor at West Virginia University, died Friday of lung cancer. He was 71.
Born May 12, 1941, in Detroit, the depth and variety of Mr. Starr's interests and work -- including dozens of publications in major journals, six nonfiction books and two plays -- made him a public intellectual who used his scholarly training to try to improve the common good, according to his friends and family members.
He most recently wrote "The Arts in Social Change" and "Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting." His plays, "Buried: The Sago Mine Disaster" and "Interesting Times," were produced at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. "Buried" also was produced at Compass Theatre San Diego and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Starr was outgoing and interested in everything and everyone -- a modern "renaissance man" who loved discussing and debating topics from racial justice to the latest movie, said his friend, Mark Wicclair.
"You could talk to him about anything, and he was one of those people very at ease in social situations," said Mr. Wicclair, a philosophy professor at West Virginia University who commuted with Mr. Starr for many years. "He was a marvelous person."
After graduating from Mumford High School in 1959 and Montieth College of Wayne State University in 1964, Mr. Starr served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in the late 1960s. He earned a doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University in 1970.
He taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1976, then took a job as a sociology professor at West Virginia University, where he worked from 1976 to 2002. Dissatisfied with the quality of schools in West Virginia, the couple moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1979 so their sons, Jason and Zachary, could attend public schools there, while Mr. Starr commuted to West Virginia University to work.
There, one of Mr. Starr's students, while writing a paper on coverage of the Vietnam War in school textbooks, discovered that if books mentioned the war at all, they usually included no more than a paragraph, Mrs. Starr recalled. Her husband moved quickly to correct the situation, founding the Center for Social Studies Education in 1984 and creating a curriculum -- based on a course he taught at WVU for 13 years -- for teaching students about the Vietnam War. The curriculum ultimately was incorporated into thousands of high school and college programs across the country.
It was his efforts for the WQED accountability project during the 1990s that made him best known in Pittsburgh. Mr. Starr tried to bring greater diversity to public television and to fight its commercialization. As part of his research, his wife said, Mr. Starr found that many stations were lobbying to have conservative religious organizations classified as "educational." He analyzed the content of shows produced by many of those organizations.
"They have attitudes toward people who are not Christian that are really insulting, and he was outraged by that," his wife said.
Mr. Starr founded the advocacy groups Pittsburgh Educational Television in 1996 and Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting in 1998 as well as the Coalition to Defend Educational Broadcasting in 1999.
To create the diverse content he found lacking in public television, Mr. Starr in 2003 helped produce the documentary series, "Homefront," which focused on the War in Iraq, media monopoly, the war on drugs, nuclear weapons, security vs. freedom in the war on terrorism, and hate crimes. Featuring local experts and a live audience, the films were produced at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side and distributed by Free Speech TV on The Dish satellite service to its 9 million subscribers and to about 50 PBS and public access TV stations across the country.
Mr. Starr also served as a visiting professor of communication at the University of California at San Diego from 2004 to 2008, when he retired.
A private memorial service will be held at a later date. Arrangements are being handled by Warchol Funeral Home in Bridgeville.