September 17, 2003

Konvitz '33 Dies

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Milton Konvitz Ph.D. ’33, a former Cornell professor known for his important contributions to constitutional scholarship, his engaging and popular lecture courses and his genial demeanor passed away on Sept. 5, in Monmouth, N.J.

Konvitz, who held professorial appointments in both the Cornell Law School and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations for nearly 35 years, died at the age of 95.

Prof. Henry Landsberger, professor emeritus, sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a scholar of Konvitz’s work. Landsberger said that the corpus of Konvitz’s scholarship reflected his varied intellectual interests. His work often included references to everything from ancient religious texts to transcendentalist writings.

“Konvitz was a guy who was studying and practicing law, writing on civil rights and invariably citing not only the great poets and literary figures, but also the great philosophers,” Landsberger said.

Konvitz continued to study and write long after he retired in 1974. His final book, Torah and Constitution: Essays in American Jewish Thought, was published by Syracuse University Press in 1998.

According to Prof. Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Konvitz’s extraordinary work ethic and his devotion to scholarship, students and colleagues, continued until his death last week.

“[Prof. Konvitz] was a model scholar, educator and mentor,” Brann said. “He remained intellectually vigorous and very social.”

Konvitz worked diligently to make himself accessible to the Cornell community. He encouraged students to visit him at home; he corresponded with many of his former students — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 — and he worked to make junior faculty feel at home in Ithaca.

Soon after Brann came to Cornell as an assistant professor in 1986, Konvitz invited him to a lunch.

“He had an openness and a willingness to listen and to mentor,” Brann said.

For many Cornell alumni, Konvitz’s two courses on the formation of American ideals — known as ILR-308 and ILR-309 — were defining parts of their tenures as undergraduates. Everyone listened when Konvitz, dressed in his characteristic suit and bowtie, took to the podium.

Stuart Binstock ’75, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s Management Education Institute, credited Konvitz for inspiring him to attend law school. Binstock remembered how he and his peers would spend most lectures at the edges of their seats.

“He was a man who did not have a big voice,” Binstock said. “But he had very large thoughts.”

Konvitz immigrated to the United States from Safed, Palestine in 1915, and later received a bachelor and law degree from New York University. He obtained a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell in 1933, only a year after he began the program.

During the Great Depression, Konvitz practiced law at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as an assistant general counsel to Thurgood Marshall. After a brief tenure at NYU and the New School for Social Research, Konvitz accepted a professorship in ILR in 1946, a year after the school’s founding.

While at Cornell, Konvitz helped to start the Program of Jewish Studies, advocated for the establishment of the Department of Near Eastern Studies and directed the Cornell Liberian Codification Project.

On Dec. 4, 1974, Konvitz addressed his final ILR-308 class. His last lecture was an eloquent and optimistic valediction complete with references to Schopenhauer and Tennyson.

“For I have been among the most fortunate of men,” Konvitz said. “I have spent my days and years doing exactly what I so much wished to do.”

An on-campus memorial service for Konvitz is planned for the weekend of Oct. 26.

Archived article by David Gura