William Goldsmith, retired Brandeis professor; at 90

By Walter Dawkins
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2010

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William Michael Goldsmith, an American studies and politics professor at Brandeis University for 24 years, put theory into practice, working tirelessly to help improve the lives of others. He was active in the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s and was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.

At Brandeis, he helped create the groundbreaking initiatives Upward Bound, a summer program for talented high school students from underserved neighborhoods; and the Transitional Year Program, which provided intensive academic remediation for entering students.

Through these initiatives and through personal advising, Mr. Goldsmith helped many underprivileged students from South Boston, Roxbury, and other areas earn college degrees.

His published study, “The Growth of Presidential Power,’’ is considered by many to be one of the definitive works on the American presidency. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called it indispensable and “a remarkable tour-de-force of historical scholarship.’’

Mr. Goldsmith was also an environmental activist who helped save a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard from development.

Mr. Goldsmith died March 23 at the Long Hill assisted living facility in Edgartown of complications from a stroke. He was 90.

“He was an absolutely dedicated teacher, as well as a scholar and citizen of the world,’’ said Jacob Cohen, an American studies professor at Brandeis. “He was a reformer in everything he touched and a dedicated public servant.’’

Mr. Goldsmith left a strong academic legacy at Brandeis. Cohen called his “The Growth of Presidential Power,’’ “one of the most thorough collections of materials on the presidency that has ever been produced.’’

Mr. Goldsmith also created the university’s Brandeis Papers Commission, a permanent repository for the papers of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Among the many underprivileged students Mr. Goldsmith helped through Upward Bound and the Transitional Year Program was Paul Regan, a high school dropout and Marine Vietnam War veteran who is now a lawyer with offices in Boston and Washington. Mr. Goldsmith acted as his academic adviser, tutor, and mentor.

“Bill really cared about people,’’ Regan said. “He believed that with a little encouragement and guidance that students that others might write off could survive and thrive at a school like Brandeis. He was a great man.’’

Mr. Goldsmith went beyond the established programs, setting up an office on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury to recruit disadvantaged teens to Brandeis. He kept night hours there and ran radio ads to attract students. One of these young people was Gail Sullivan, a 1973 graduate of Brandeis who is now a lawyer in Boston. When Sullivan’s mother and older brother died, Mr. Goldsmith became the legal guardian for her and younger brother Tom.

“He was a renaissance man fighting to help other Americans live the American dream,’’ said Sullivan, who with Regan and others created the William Goldsmith Endowed Scholarship in 2007. “Bill was a true American liberal, in the Jack Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Barack Obama tradition.’’

Mr. Goldsmith’s passion for causes extended to the environment and he helped halt development of the 145-acre Waskosim’s Rock Reservation on Martha’s Vineyard, where he owned a summer home. “Bill was a man of deep convictions who provided leadership on a land-use issue of critical importance to Martha’s Vineyard,’’ said Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society. “I will miss [his] infectious enthusiasm one sees occasionally in highly gifted teachers.’’

Mr. Goldsmith was a dedicated family man. While teaching at Brandeis, Mr. Goldsmith assumed many of the household duties when his wife enrolled in Harvard Medical School when she was in her mid-30s.

“Dad took on the role of after-school driver, homework consultant, and book report typist,’’ said his daughter Suzanne Goldsmith-Hirsch of Bexley, Ohio.

Mr. Goldsmith was born in New York. He completed his freshman year at Catholic University in Washington, but left after the market crash of 1929 to work and support his parents. During his free time, his passion for reading grew and his interest in political causes developed.

He graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., in 1948 after serving in the Air Force during World War II, then took a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, doing educational work in the South before becoming the southern educational director for the Textile Workers Union.

Mr. Goldsmith graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in public law and government and received a Senior Fulbright Fellowship to study at Oxford. In 1959, he married Marianne Lovink. Mr. Goldsmith was at a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in New York when she went into labor with their first child, Suzanne.

In 1960, Mr. Goldsmith became a faculty member at Brandeis University, where he worked until retiring in 1984.

He and his wife then moved to White Plains, N.Y., where she finished a residency in psychiatry, and then to Providence, where she practiced. They relocated to Martha’s Vineyard in 2002.

Goldsmith-Hirsch said she will miss her father’s spirited talks about politics in his deep, gravelly voice. “He could talk all night about political theory, but to him it wasn’t worth anything if you didn’t put it into action,’’ Goldsmith-Hirsch said. “He was a diehard optimist, and armed with that belief, and with boundless energy, he usually succeeded in changing things for the better — often against great odds.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Goldsmith leaves another daughter, Alexandra Goldsmith Forbes of Carmel, Calif.; a son, Michael of Chilmark; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for the fall.