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First woman department chair in Lehigh history dies at 91

Anna Pirscenok Herz of the department of modern foreign languages and literature was the first woman at Lehigh promoted to full professor. In 1972, she was the first woman named a department chairperson at the university.

Anna P. Herz, a professor who taught Slavic and Eastern European languages at Lehigh for several decades and became the first woman in university history to be named a full professor and a department chair, died July 2nd in her home in Bucks County. She was 91.

Herz grew up in a richly diverse South Bethlehem neighborhood in the shadow of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant during the 1920s and ‘30s. Her familiarity with and love of languages were born in the neighborhood, then populated by many recent immigrant groups and known as “the Heights.”

“Her family spoke Russian, and their neighbors knew Ukrainian, Wendish, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, and many other languages,” recalls Mary Nicholas, associate professor of modern languages and literature at Lehigh and a close friend and colleague of Herz. “She was very proud of that heritage and justly so. It was a relatively modest upbringing, but her family valued education, and Anna was a strong woman and a very hard worker and she made it to the University of Pennsylvania and the Ivy League on her own merits.”

Herz received both her Bachelor of Science and doctoral degrees from Penn, and her Master’s in higher education administration from Columbia. She also earned her Registered Nurse degree from Hahnemann College and served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.

When she returned to the area to teach foreign languages and conduct research at Lehigh, “it was a case of hometown girl makes good,” Nicholas said. “Although her accomplishments took her around the world and she had friends and colleagues in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Germany, Austria and so many other countries, she never forgot her beginnings.”

Herz also never forgot what it felt to be one of few women in a Lehigh environment then dominated by men, says Barb Turanchik, director of Club Sports at Lehigh and a member of the university’s first co-educational class.

“I had Professor Herz for Russian in 1971, when there were very few women faculty,” Turanchik said. “Of course, I was the only woman in the class. I always remember her being a very encouraging faculty member to me at the time–knowing that I too was a South Sider–and she was always very proud to acknowledge that fact. It was as if she and I had a special bond and understood what it was like to be one of the first. She’d just been named department chair, so she, too, was proving herself in her own way.”

Turanchik recalled challenging classroom sessions, where she and fellow students were encouraged to immerse themselves in the culture of the language they were studying to deepen their understanding.

“Our class was mostly conversational and things that we read were books written in Russian. Our goal was to only speak Russian in the classroom, so she brought in food or items that were from Russia so we could sit and talk,” she said. “It was as if we were in her living room and she was making us comfortable.”

Turanchik and Herz continued their friendship long after graduation. When she served as director of the university’s Alumni Association, Turanchik asked Herz to escort an alumni tour group to Russia. Again, Herz sought to welcome the group by acquainting them with the part of the world they would be exploring.

“She really took the time to make our alumni feel ready to be a part of the Russian culture and understand what they were going to see and how to get the most out of the trip,” said Turanchik, who noted that Herz’s medical training also came into play when she deftly handled a health emergency involving one of the travelers.

As with Turanchik’s group, Herz welcomed any opportunity to share her passion for foreign cultures with others, Nicholas said. She recalled a trip to Moscow at the end of the Soviet period, when both professors were part of a delegation to the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature.

“We stayed in the old Hotel Rossiya, one of the largest hotels in Europe with over 3,000 rooms, not far from the Kremlin. Anna had been there many times, but she never got tired of the stunning view of Red Square,” Nicholas said. “Her love of the culture and her devotion to sharing it sustained her over her long career at Lehigh.”

Herz maintained strong friendships with many colleagues and students long after her retirement. She also remained active in her field, contributing to the International Bibliography of Languages and Literatures of the Modern Language Association of America and translating for several projects.

“Anna Herz was a role model and mentor to many, even in her retirement,” said Lehigh President Alice Gast. “I enjoyed talking to her and learning from her experiences; she made us all strive for cultural understanding and international harmony.”

Added Joseph P. Kender, vice president of advancement: “She believed deeply in Lehigh and had great respect for its educational mission and the opportunities it affords students. She was a generous supporter of the university throughout her life, and she will be greatly missed by so many who had the privilege to work with her and share her passion for languages and her genuine love of lifelong learning.”

Anna Herz is survived by her husband of 47 years, Julius M. Herz.
 

 
Memorial gifts may be directed to the Professor Anna Pirscenok Herz Endowed Scholarship Fund. 

Story by Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Monday, July 22, 2013

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