Obituary: Joseph Wechsler Eaton / University of Pittsburgh professor, author fled Nazi Germany
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Joseph Wechsler Eaton fled Nazi Germany as a boy, returned there as a U.S. soldier spreading propaganda against it and survived to become a well-rounded academic working into his 90s, writing about everything from the Hutterite community and prison reform to Middle Eastern affairs and Pennsylvania's high fees for title insurance.
Mr. Eaton, of Squirrel Hill, was known for his boundless curiosity as a scholar and his empathetic patience with students as a University of Pittsburgh professor from 1960 to 1990. He died Monday at UPMC Shadyside at the age of 93. He was diagnosed with lymphoma 15 years ago but continued voracious studies and writing until recently.
"He was exhausting me," said one of Mr. Eaton's recent co-authors, his son, David, a University of Texas professor. "When we did work together, he had all the good ideas and I helped a little bit."
Mr. Eaton's wife, Helen, said life with her well-traveled husband was a series of adventures.
For him, it started as an adolescent. He and his brothers were among Jewish children the Nazis forced out of schools in Nuremberg after Adolf Hitler rose to power. Their parents sent them out of the country before the situation became worse, and Joseph (born Josef Wechsler before changing his name in the U.S.) ended up with a foster family in New York City, first learning English at age 13. His parents were killed in the Holocaust.
He learned the language and excelled at academics well enough that he was a Columbia University student at the time the U.S. Army drafted him in 1943. Mr. Eaton's earlier efforts to enlist for World War II were thwarted by his classification as a German-born "enemy alien."
The Army made use of his language skills to send him to Europe as a journalist with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, doing work that included writing anti-Nazi leaflets dropped over enemy lines.
He remained in Europe with the Army after the war, editing a large newspaper distributed to German civilians. He traveled and wrote, including articles about the Nazis' concentration and displaced-person camps and Hitler's birthplace in Braunau, Bavaria.
Ever the meticulous researcher, Mr. Eaton took copious notes and retained numerous photographs and documents of everything he came across. Through his donations late in life, some of that material has ended up in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jewish Museum Berlin.
After leaving the Army, Mr. Eaton obtained a doctorate in sociology from Columbia and served on the faculties of Wayne State University, Western Reserve University and UCLA before being hired in 1960 by Pitt, where he was a professor of social work, sociology, public health and administration.
While with the university's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, he traveled the world frequently as a lecturer, including a six-week stint in East Germany in 1980. He took a leave of absence in the early 1970s to help create the School of Social Work at the University of Haifa in Israel.
Mr. Eaton also wrote numerous columns on foreign affairs while serving as chairman of the community relations committee of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Mr. Eaton had been a mayoral appointee to Pittsburgh's Cable Communications Advisory Committee since 1994, including four years as its chairman, helping set the city's policies in regards to its local cable franchise.
His broad interests led him to author or co-author 16 books on wide-ranging topics. Among the first was a study of the pacifist Hutterite community in Alberta, Canada. He and his wife lived among that insular community for two years in the early 1950s, making friends with people typically closed off to outsiders.
Likewise, Mr. Eaton used his German language skills to connect with East German social scientists and authorities in a way that was uncommon back in 1980 on their visit there, Mrs. Eaton recalled.
"There were adventures like that all the time," she said. "You never knew what would be next."
Mr. Eaton was a retired professor in his 80s when a chance encounter with the Texas insurance commissioner while visiting his son led him to focus on the issue of title insurance fees, which are uneven across the country, with Pennsylvania's among the highest. He met with legislators and regulators on the topic in Harrisburg and Washington, wrote a book about it in 2007 and was at work on another at the time of his death.
"If something interested him, he would attach to it, take an interest and follow it wherever it goes," said a longtime friend, fellow Pitt professor Jerome McKinney. "He had a lot of strengths but always a continuing curiosity."
In recognition of his influence on numerous doctoral students in the School of Social Work, a group of its alumni established the Joseph W. and Helen F. Eaton Emerging Scholars Award Fund in 2007 to make cash awards to worthy doctoral students. One of those alums, Brian Segal of Toronto, credited Mr. Eaton as a deep-thinking, innovative mentor.
"And at a personal level, he was an incredibly warm, caring, interested individual -- when he spoke to you, it was as though he thought you were the only person in the world," Mr. Segal said.
In addition to his wife and his son David, of Austin, Mr. Eaton is survived by two other sons, Seth, of Laurel, Md., and Jonathan, of New Haven, Conn.; a daughter, Debra Norberg, of Bethesda, Md.; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Eaton was buried Monday in Maryland. Arrangements were by Ralph Schugar Chapel, Shadyside.
First Published October 19, 2012 12:00 am