Irving Joseph Spitzberg, Jr., professor, immigration lawyer, higher education policy consultant and former ICWA fellow, died peacefully in Rockville, MD on October 13 after an unsuccessful battle with cryptococcal meningitis, Spitzberg’s widow Virginia Thorndike said. He was 81.
“Irving had a special place in his heart for ICWA,” she wrote, “and often spoke of his affection and respect for Dick Nolte, who interviewed him for the fellowship long ago.”
Scholar and diplomat Nolte was the institute’s executive director at the time, and Irving described the conversation in his final dispatch for the institute in April 1974.
“Just before graduating from Yale Law School,” he writes, “I was talking to one of my professors about the prospect of finding financing for a year in England, where I would study the changeover in Oxford [University] from the informal administrative system of centuries to a newly powerful system of a four-year chancellor. This professor was the president of a foundation in New York City as well as a lawyer at Yale. He told me… he knew of a foundation down the street on 5th Avenue which did indulge a few lucky souls with such harebrained schemes.”
“I promptly contacted the mysterious Mr. Nolte, who turned out to be a genial, pipe-smoking Arabist and who seemed to know something interesting about almost everyone and every topic under the sun… But as I was talking to Mr. Nolte, it became apparent to me that my plans for the next year were too ‘small potatoes.’ What he wanted was a project that indicated some ‘chutzpah.’”
Irving followed Nolte’s suggestion and researched education policy in not only England but also Kenya, Israel and the United States on a fellowship spanning 1971 to 1974.
After returning, Irving became a professor at Brown, the Claremont Colleges, and SUNY/Buffalo, where he served as dean of the colleges.
He later moved to Washington, DC, to lead the American Association of University Professors as general secretary, and later developed innovative programming as an executive at the Association of American Colleges. During the last years of his professional life, he practiced immigration law, advocating for political asylum-seekers while helping run The Knowledge Company, which he founded with Thorndike.
Irving was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942 to Irving J. Spitzberg, Sr. and Marie S. Spitzberg. He came to activism early. In high school, he helped organize his fellow students to recall segregationist school board members in a special election. The Arkansas Gazette reported that he hesitated to give a quote to a reporter for fear of potential retaliation. “But I can tell you it’s the last time in my life I ever waffled,” he later wrote in a book on the subject, Racial Politics in Little Rock. “I learned that night not to worry about what other people think about me.”
After high school, Irving attended Columbia University, then studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford on a Kellit Fellowship. He later earned a JD at Yale.
Irving married Thorndike, his wife of 35 years, in 1988. “Irving will always be remembered for his encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything, and his love of sharing that knowledge with pretty much everyone,” she said. “He was, in his essence, an educator. He was also a centrist, a humanitarian who could identify with and show compassion toward everyone. Those who knew him will miss Irving’s irrepressible free spirit and ebullient love of life every day.”
Irving is survived by Thorndike; two sons from his first marriage, Edward Storm Spitzberg and his wife Neesham Spitzberg, of Bethesda, MD, and David Adam Spitzberg and his wife Mariana Spitzberg of Olney, MD; his grandchildren, Lulu Spitzberg, Mateo Spitzberg and Tomas Spitzberg; and his brother, Paul Seeman Spitzberg and his wife Barbara Spitzberg of Tenafly, NJ.
A memorial celebration will be scheduled for a later date. In the spring, Irving’s family will hold a service at Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, spiritual home of Spitzbergs for over 100 years. The family requests that no flowers be sent and that memorials be in the form of donations to Casey House (run by Montgomery Hospice, 301-921-4400; montgomeryhospice.org).
Top photo: Christ Church College entrance, Oxford (Dylan Moore, Wikimedia Commons)