Bernard Bellush (1917–2011)
Mark A. Stoler, May 2012
Historian of Labor and the New Deal, Committed Teacher, Political Activist
Bernard Bellush, Professor Emeritus of History at the City College of New York (CCNY), died of natural causes at age 94 on December 30, 2011 in White Plains, New York.
Born in the Bronx, New York, on November 15, 1917, Bellush attended New York City public schools, graduated from CCNY in 1941, and then entered the history graduate program at Columbia University. He was raised in a politically active leftist household and was active himself politically during his years at CCNY, and indeed throughout his life. Part of the famous Shepherd Hall "Alcove Number One" group of student radicals at CCNY during the 1930s (as discussed in the book and movie Arguing with the World), he identified with Norman Thomas's Socialist Party and wrote his MA thesis on Eugene V. Debs.
Despite a pacifist upbringing, Bellush did not apply for conscientious objector status during World War II; instead he was inducted into the U.S. Army on November 14, 1942—the same day he handed in his MA thesis on Debs and one day before his 25th birthday. He rose to the rank of sergeant and took part in the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy—a harrowing experience that left him with a lifelong fear of cliffs. He remained proud of his service throughout the rest of his life, served on the national board of the American Veterans Committee, and often marched in uniform during the July 4th parades in the small towns of Vermont where he often spent the summer.
After the war Bellush continued his graduate studies at Columbia under the G.I. Bill, with Alan Nevins as his dissertation adviser. He received the PhD degree in 1951 and joined the CCNY faculty in that same year. While at Columbia he also met another history graduate student, Jewel Lubin. She would become his wife in 1947 and have a distinguished academic career of her own in the political science Department at Hunter College in New York.
Bellush belonged to the first generation of historians to study Franklin D. Roosevelt and make use of the extensive manuscript materials at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. His doctoral dissertation and first book, published by Columbia University Press in 1955 as Franklin D. Roosevelt as Governor of New York, focused on the roots of the New Deal in those gubernatorial years. In 1968 he published He Walked Alone: A Biography of John G. Winant (The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1968), and in 1975 The Failure of the N.R.A. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975). In 1984 he and Jewel Bellush co-authored a study of the largest and most successful municipal union in New York City, Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37 (New York: Praeger, 1984).
Bellush taught briefly at John Marshall College, Hunter College, Cooper Union, Columbia University, and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands as a Fulbright Professor of American History (1966–67 and 1970–71); but his primary affiliation remained his alma mater, CCNY, from his 1951 appointment until his retirement. In addition to his teaching and scholarly work, he served as chair of the history department at the downtown branch of CCNY (now Baruch College) from 1958-1963. He was also very active in the faculty senate, serving as its first chair as well as a member of its executive committee. After retirement he began a second career as a journalist, writing on political issues for the English edition of the Jewish Daily Forward. He also remained politically active in such organizations as Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Veterans Committee, the World Veterans Federation, and the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security.
Bellush was a legendary teacher at CCNY, winning an outstanding teacher award in 1965–66 and wide recognition by generations of students. He was 6 foot 3 inches tall and possessed an extraordinary classroom presence based upon his deep, booming voice and passionate delivery as well as his erudition and teaching abilities. As a guest speaker in my own classes, he was still mesmerizing students well into his eighties. Although he specialized in the New Deal and American labor history, his interests and courses were wide-ranging—and often related to the political issues in which he happened to be involved. As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to be enrolled in his senior seminar for history majors in the fall of 1965. Far from accidentally, given the events of that year, he selected as the seminar theme presidential influencing of public opinion prior to previous American wars, with each of us writing a seminar paper on one such war to be critiqued by him and the class as a whole. Also far from accidentally, he still had those papers well into his retirement and remained in contact with many of his students, myself included. In truth he never stopped being our teacher and advisor. Nor did he ever stop caring about us. I would receive calls on my birthday, as well as consistent advice on my personal life as well as my career down to my last visit with him, just a month before his death.
Bellush is survived by Jewel, his wife of 64 years, his two daughters, Debbi Bellush and Gerry Goldberg, and his grandchildren Noah and Rebecca Goldberg. A memorial service will be held on May 19 at Westchester Community College, Valhalla Campus, where another former student, Joseph Hankin, is president (for additional information on the memorial service, Gerry Goldberg may be contacted at email@example.com).
Fittingly, Bellush and his wife have donated their papers to the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in New York. Just as fittingly, donations in his memory may be made to three organizations representative of his lifelong interests in organized labor, disabled veterans, and disarmament: the Workmen's Circle; the Wounded Warrior Project; and the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security.
—Mark A. Stoler
University of Vermont