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In Memoriam: Ronald Gottesman, 77

The professor emeritus of English wrote books on subjects from Henry Miller to King Kong and was beloved by his students.

Ronald Gottesman, professor emeritus of English in USC College, remained close with generations of students. "Ron was a father to me and perhaps my closest friend," said author and former USC College Ph.D. student Chris Abani. Photo courtesy of Beth Shube.
Ronald Gottesman, professor emeritus of English in USC College, remained close with generations of students. "Ron was a father to me and perhaps my closest friend," said author and former USC College Ph.D. student Chris Abani. Photo courtesy of Beth Shube.

Ronald Gottesman, founding director of the Center for the Humanities at USC, and professor emeritus of English in USC College, has died. He was 77.

Gottesman died from complications of pneumonia May 10 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said his widow Beth Shube of Marina Del Rey.

A faculty member in the College from 1975 to 2001, Gottesman taught American literature and American studies, and authored numerous books and articles. He edited and commissioned more than 200 critical and reference volumes in at least six book series.

Spanning a plethora of subjects, his research focused on diverse people and topics from Upton Sinclair, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Orson Welles, to William Dean Howells, Henry Miller and fictional ape King Kong. Other areas of expertise included textual editing, robots and film scholarship.

He edited a major section of the Norton Anthology of American Literature and was founding editor of two quarterly journals: Quarterly Review of Film and Video and Humanities in Society. Most recently he co-edited Playing to the Camera: Film Actors Discuss Their Craft (Yale University Press, 1998) and served as editor-in-chief for three volumes of Scribner’s Violence in America: An Encyclopedia.

A highly decorated professor — he was a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, and was senior research fellow at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin and the Yale University Humanities Center, to name a few honors — Gottesman’s greatest legacy may be the pivotal role he played as mentor and friend to his students, Beth Shube said.

“Students he had starting from 50 years ago kept in touch with him; calling, visiting, sending him their manuscripts,” Shube said. “He had generations of students he remained close with.”

He attended their weddings, and was there for the baptisms of their children, she said, or their children’s bar mitzvahs as well as their school and university graduations.

“He was always part of their lives,” she said.

Several of Gottesman’s loyal students echoed the sentiment.

Chris Abani met Gottesman through a mutual friend shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. The Nigerian-born writer and musician had come to L.A. via England after having been a political prisoner in his homeland.

“I was in dire straits and Ron immediately offered everything that he had — access to his home, clothes, pots and pans,” Abani recalled. “To Ron, I wasn’t someone to be rescued, but a full human being, a new friend and that friendship was what he celebrated. His generous help was simply a by-product of his love.”

Gottesman helped to get Abani enrolled in the College’s then-new doctoral program in literature and creative writing. In 2006, Abani became the program’s first graduate. A prolific author, Abani was hired by the University of California, Riverside before completing his Ph.D. He attributes much of his success to Gottesman’s help and friendship.

In L.A., Abani joined a large community of Gottesman and Beth’s friends.

“It is telling that at Ron’s retirement party people flew in from Singapore and Greece,” Abani said. “There were academics, poets, painters, sculptors, jazz musicians and people in every age bracket, a truly intergenerational group.”

In addition to helping Abani in his career, Gottesman taught Abani deep philosophical lessons about life.

“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Ron was a father to me and perhaps my closest friend,” said Abani, who was at the hospital with Gottesman’s family when the professor died.

Stephen Cooper was Gottesman’s Ph.D. student from 1986 to 1991, before becoming a professor of English at Cal State Long Beach.

“Ron was the most generous teacher I’ve had the good fortune to study under,” Cooper said. “Not only in terms of what he gave us in the classroom, but what he carried forward in life. He was a teacher and a friend. He had a more powerful influence on me than any other teacher in my life.”

Cooper had kept in frequent contact with Gottesman. He and his wife had dinner plans with Gottesman and Beth set for the Saturday before he fell ill.

“He was a magnificent man,” Cooper said. “Besides being a model scholar, he was a good human being.” 

Parents of his students also adored him.

“We met him and we loved him,” the mother of former student Ishita Roy wrote from India. “Ishita is bereft. She told me, ‘He was my second father. Not only for me; he was a father to all his students.’ ”

Born in Boston, Gottesman was educated at the University of Massachusetts, Colgate University and Indiana University, where he earned his Ph.D. He taught composition, creative writing, literary criticism, American and world literature, and film history and aesthetics at Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers universities, and at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. 

He served as visiting professor at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and the University of Nice in France. He lectured at many universities throughout the United States and Europe.

After his retirement in 2001, Gottesman devoted himself to Australian Aboriginal art through the development of an online gallery featuring paintings, prints and carvings. He also traveled the world as lecturer for USC’s Alumni Travel. 

In addition to his wife, Gottesman is survived by his children Lann McIntyre, Grant Gottesman and Allison McCabe, and four grandchildren: Erin McIntyre (who earned her doctorate in occupational therapy from USC on Friday), Jessie McIntyre, Ben Gottesman and Blake Kublin.

A celebration of Gottesman’s life will be held on Saturday, May 22, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. E-mail beth.shube@verizon.net for details.

Donations may be made to SPCALA (www.spcaLA.com) and to Food on Foot (www.foodonfoot.org).