Herbert Kurz ’41, a longtime philanthropist and supporter of civil liberties and progressive social change, died Nov. 24 in Suffern, N.Y. He was 94. Kurz was a trustee of the Brooklyn College Foundation and had a high regard for the college, endowing two faculty positions as well as a long-running lecture series on civil liberties and academic freedom.
Academic freedom was of special concern to Kurz, who was the nephew of Brooklyn College Assistant Professor of English Frederic Ewen (1899-1988). Professor Ewen, who was politically active, refused to testify in 1941 and 1952 about his past political associations, and as a result was denied promotion at Brooklyn College, harassed by the FBI, and effectively blacklisted from ever holding an academic post again. Ewen’s wife, the composer Miriam Gideon (1906-2006), was also blacklisted and resigned her position at the college.
Kurz, who majored in economics at Brooklyn College, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a decorated navigator flying over Northern Europe and Greenland during World War II. After the war, he founded Veterans Against Discrimination, which became an active element within the radical Civil Rights Congress, formed in 1946 to call attention to racial injustice in the United States. In 1965, Kurz founded Presidential Life, a successful insurance and annuity business based in Nyack, N.Y., and now part of the Athene Annuity & Life Assurance Company of New York. As part of his dedication to social change, Kurz and his wife, Edythe, founded the Kurz Family Foundation, which has been very supportive of Rockland County charities and has also provided significant support to Brooklyn College. In 1990, in honor of his uncle, Kurz endowed the Frederic Ewen Lecture in Civil Liberties and Academic Freedom, which annually attracts important scholars from around the world to Brooklyn College. Past speakers have included animal ethicist Peter W. Singer, historians Eric Foner and Joan Wallach Scott, and journalists Christian Parenti, Nat Hentoff and Eric Alterman. In 2005, Brooklyn College presented a special Presidential Citation to Herb Kurz on behalf of his late uncle, which recognized Frederic Ewen's accomplishments as a scholar and a teacher, and noted his "impassioned defense of liberty and intellectual freedom."
Kurz joined the Brooklyn College Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 1999 and became a significant funder of the Black and Latino Male Initiative, a CUNY-wide effort designed to increase the enrollment and retention of students from underrepresented groups in all five boroughs of New York City. In recent months, he established the Herb Kurz Leadership Academy Fund at Brooklyn College to continue this important work. In 2011, he endowed the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights and Civil Liberties at Brooklyn College, currently held by the constitutional scholar Anna Law. Over the summer, Kurz again honored his alma mater by endowing the Herb Kurz ’41 Chair of Finance and Risk Management in the Brooklyn College School of Business.