The Holocaust inspired political scientist Ted Mitau to make a difference

Like other Jewish children who grew up in Germany in the 1930s, Gunter Theodore Mitau was forced to wear a Star of David and attend a separate school in Berlin. He was 13 when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, but obtained a student visa for the United States in 1937, narrowly escaping the Holocaust that left his mother among its 6 million Jewish victims. .

Over the next four decades, Mitau became a student at Macalester College and then a longtime professor of political science at St. Paul’s School, mentoring countless colleagues and students, including future vice-presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

Appointed Chancellor of the Minnesota State College and University System in 1968 at age 47, Mitau reshaped the state’s higher education landscape during what he called “a middle-aged adventure.” “. The network when Mitau took over included six colleges in Winona, Mankato, St. Cloud, Moorhead, Bemidji and Marshall, with a total enrollment of 33,000 students. Today, the state of Minnesota serves 340,000 students, with 30 colleges and seven universities on 54 campuses.

Mitau was very proud of his vision for Minnesota Metropolitan State College, now known as Metropolitan State University, originally a college without walls, grades or terms, intended for working adults who can benefit from the experience. of the real world to earn their degrees.

It was considered “a first-rate utopian experiment,” according to Monte Bute, a recently retired Metropolitan State sociology professor who has written extensively on Mitau’s role in establishing the school – which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and now has a campus in Saint-Paul.

The Minneapolis Tribune in 1973 described Mitau as “a nervous, energetic, fast-paced individual with a tremendous drive to accomplish, [who] cajole, cajole, prick and encourage officials … without being too arrogant about it. “

Mitau’s father, Alexander, held a senior position in a Berlin telephone company, but died when Gunter was around 10 years old. A bicycle accident killed his brother, Werner, a few years later. This left Mitau and his mother, Rosel, who chose not to join her 17-year-old son on his trip to New York – never dreaming of the fate that would befall his fellow Jews.

“Imagine this young child knowing he had to leave Germany and his mother not believing him,” his widow, Charlotte Mitau-Price, told Macalester Alumni Magazine in 1998. They were married in 1941 and had two children. The family learned years later that Rosel had died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Andrea Mitau Kircher said her father “buried” her memories of Germany and rarely spoke of her childhood, according to Rebecca Gonzalez-Campoy, who interviewed family members for the 1998 article.

“Because he was the sole survivor of his family, he may have struggled with guilt, like many Holocaust survivors,” Kircher said. “It made him even more determined to accomplish something, to try to make the world a better place.”

Mitau bonded with relatives when he arrived in the United States in 1937, studied at New York University, watched movies to improve his English, and did the dishes for money. Measuring only 5ft 6in, he was forced to climb into large pots to clean up the encrusted stains – his reason why he later refused to do the dishes at home, he explained to his family. .

One of his English teachers in New York with roots in St. Paul encouraged Mitau to move to Macalester, where he taught German to offset school fees. After graduating in 1940 and serving in the United States Army, he began teaching at Macalester, adding a master’s and doctorate. degrees from the University of Minnesota and eventually become chairman of the political science department. His name was Ted rather than Gunter, considering his first name was too difficult for Americans to pronounce.

Sharing a faculty office with fellow instructor Humphrey, Mitau enlisted student volunteers in 1948 to help his colleague wrest control of the first DFL party from his Communist faction and win the US Senate election. Among these students was Mondale.

When Mitau became chancellor of state university in 1968, he drove his old-fashioned Volkswagen to visit rural lawmakers before the budgeting session began. “I felt it was absolutely essential for me to meet these people on their home turf even before they got to Capitol Hill,” Mitau told Robert Whereatt of the Minneapolis Star in 1979.

In this interview just months before his death, Mitau said something that resonates as prophetic today.

“I like politicians,” he told Whereatt. “I’m one of those people who respect politicians. I don’t belong to this cynical political school.… When we ridicule our politicians, belittle our politicians, we belittle ourselves. And when we belittle ourselves, we will have one. cynical, narcissistic society that is far from the democratic ideal. “

Then-vice president Mondale said in 1979, shortly before Mitau died at 59 of pancreatic cancer: “Looking at the tapestry of Ted’s accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that ‘one person can have such a diverse career with such a profound impact. “

Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at Minnesota in 1918, when flu, war and fires converge: strib.mn/MN1918.


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