Dr. Walter Ehrlich dies; beloved teacher, nationally acclaimed historian


Dr. Walter Ehrlich, for many years a beloved teacher at University City and Horton Watkins Ladue high schools and the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and author of Zion in the Valley, which won national acclaim as the definitive two-volume history of the Jewish community of St. Louis, died Tuesday, June 6, 2006. He was 85 years old. “Dr. Ehrlich had been in failing health and finally succumbed after a long illness and a valiant struggle,” said Irl Solomon, one of hundreds of alumni from Dr. Ehrlich’s long tenure at U. City High, in an e-mail to his fellow members of the class of l957.

“As fate would have it, Dr. Ehrlich recently reconnected with our class and completed his autobiography,” Solomon continued. “We are all grateful for Dr. Ehrlich’s life-so well-lived-and for his touching so many of our own lives. We offer loving condolences to Sylvia, his wife of 60 years, and to his children and family. May his memory be a blessing.”

Video Digitization Services ad

Solomon indeed spoke for countless students who benefited not only from Dr. Ehrlich’s teaching and lecturing skills, which were legendary, but also from his ongoing mentoring and caring over the years for all of his “kids,” those fortunate enough to have taken his classes in history, economics and American studies over the years. After struggling for several years with congestive heart failure, Dr. Ehrlich valiantly managed to complete his two-volume history of the Jewish community of St. Louis, the crowning achievement of his distinguished academic career. Aware of his frail health, Dr. Ehrlich indeed completed a detailed autobiography, “The Saga of Walter Ehrlich,” written in his distinctive clear and smooth-flowing style, warmly personal and yet done with the discipline of a nationally respected historian.

Dr. Ehrlich’s autobiography has greatly simplified the preparation of this obituary-tribute to a remarkable scholar and a warm and caring human being. The St. Louis Jewish Light is grateful to Dr. Ehrlich’s family for making the entire autobiographical manuscript available to us for this story.

Funeral services for Dr. Ehrlich are scheduled for l p.m. Thursday, June 8, 2006 at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Avenue at Kingshighway. There will be no visitation prior to the service. Burial will be at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on White Road.

In Dr. Ehrlich’s own words, “I guess we begin something — as that great sage Casey Stengel once pontificated — at its beginning. I was born on December 20, 1921, at 1812 Carr Street (second floor rear) in the area commonly referred to as ‘The Ghetto,’ not in a pejorative sense, but in both the St. Louis city newspapers as well as within the Jewish community, because that is where so many immigrant Jews lived, in the near north side, roughly Delmar on the south and Cass Avenue on the north.”

Dr. Ehrlich’s childhood and youth, growing up Jewish in the city of St. Louis, attending Soldan High School, serving his country in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Pacific, getting his Ph.D. in history at Washington University, teaching at U. City and Ladue high schools and later at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, prepared him as the perfect candidate to write the complete history of the Jewish community of St. Louis. Zion in the Valley, Volume I, covering 1807-1907, was published in l997. Because of his struggle with illness, completing Volume II, covering The Twentieth Century, was literally a race against the clock. That second volume was published in 2002, much to the relief and satisfaction not only of Dr. Ehrlich, but to his many former students, friends, family and professional colleagues in the historian community.

When several reviewers, including the St. Louis Jewish Light, applauded Zion in the Valley as the “definitive” history of the Jewish community of St. Louis, the ever-modest and self-effacing Dr. Ehrlich begged to differ. “I could only scratch the surface,” he insisted. Someone else will come along in the future to do the truly definitive history of the Jewish community of St. Louis.”

Dr. Ehrlich added, “Once I got down to serious writing, I realized that because of the amount of information I had I could never do more than just skim the surface, so to speak, and not write deeply enough about many things. I pointed out in my preface that mine was not the definitive history — that it was only seminal — and that it might awaken an interest in others to pick up where I left off and research and write in much greater detail the history of various people and institutions.”

In his fascinating “autobiography,” which itself deserves to be published in full, Dr. Ehrlich lovingly recalls that his mother had encouraged him to become a rabbi, “to which I rebelled and went instead into teaching — which after all, is what a rabbi is supposed to do anyway.” Later, when Dr. Ehrlich earned his Ph.D. in history at Washington University, he was discouraged from concentrating specifically on Jewish history. He became an expert especially in American history, having written his doctoral dissertation on the famous Dred Scott case, and later instilling generations of students with his obvious love and zest for the subject which he made “come alive” in his classes.

Even though young Walter Ehrlich, still at Washington U. seeking advanced degrees, was originally 4-F because of poor vision and flat feet, he voluntarily waived that status after Pearl Harbor and served with great valor in the Pacific Theater during World War II. His unit, the 37th Station Hospital, a kind of M*A*S*H unit surrounded by fierce battles, received the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation for “meritorious service.”

After returning to the states in l946, Ehrlich married his college sweetheart, Sylvia, went on to earn his Ph.D., and started his first teaching job at University City High School. “I knew of U. City’s reputation, and so went over to the school and talked to (fellow history teachers) Robert Russell and Wesley Kettelkamp and to principal James E. Baker, and accepted the job at the grand salary of $2,600 a year. That one year turned into 11 years,” said Dr. Ehrlich in his narrative.

“And so I came to U. City High — and there spent the best 11 years of my academic career. What a school! What a faculty! What a supportive community!”

Indeed it was. In those days at U. City, you could only get an “A” if you really got between 95 and l00, and zero to 64 was an “F.” There was no “grade-inflation,” and even if you were glib and gifted you could not bluff your way through. Dr. Ehrlich, along with fellow history teachers Robert Russell and Wesley Kettelkamp, were the best preparations one could hope for in preparation for college. Indeed, after taking courses from such teachers, Western Civ at Washington U., was relatively easy if you could get through that wonderful high school program, which today would be the envy of many universities.

Following U. City, Dr. Ehrlich taught history at Horton Watkins Ladue High School and later at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, where he attained the status of professor emeritus. Long active in both the general and Jewish communities, Dr. Ehrlich also served for a time as principal of the Shaare Emeth Religious School and was very active in Congregations United Hebrew, Shaare Zedek and finally Central Reform Congregation.

Dr. Ehrlich also served for many years on the board of trustees, editorial committee and finally the advisory committee of the St. Louis Jewish Light. Before illness challenged his schedule, he attended nearly every meeting, always offering his scholarly insights and wise perspectives. Dr. Ehrlich was a frequent lecturer at Lunch and Learn program, for the Brodsky Library, the Jewish Federation and the Missouri Historical Society, where he was an active participant in its recent ethnic history project, which includes a major section on the Jewish community of St. Louis.

Among Dr. Ehrlich’s many other published works was a nationally admired book called Presidential Impeachment: An American Dilemma, published in l974, right before the Watergate scandal broke. The book became a runaway best-seller as one of the best easy to understand books on the subject. Only President Nixon’s resignation halted the runaway sales of the book in its third printing.

In addition to Sylvia, his wife of 60 years, Dr. Ehrlich is survived by four children, all of whom graduated from University City Senior High School. Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich is dean of students at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; Dr. Susan Ehrlich Miller practices pediatrics in Madison, Wis., where she is also on the staff of Wisconsin Medical School; Dr. Steve Ehrlich is associate dean of the University College at Washington University in St. Louis; and Jerry Ehrlich is executive director of the St. Louis Society for the Handicapped and director of the St. Louis Senior Olympics. He is also survived by l3 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In concluding his autobiography, Walter Ehrlich wrote, “I apologize for the length of this ‘saga.’ Once I started it, though, I decided it would be not only for my U. City kids, but also for my four biological kids and their children and grandchildren … I love you guys (the class of l957 and others) and truly miss you. You have done so much to enrich my life, and I treasure my years at U. City. God bless you all. It has been a wonderful ride.”

Indeed it has! Yasher Koach, Dr. Ehrlich, and your memory will be for a blessing!

Contributions in Dr. Ehrlich’s memory may be made to the BJC Hospice or to the ethnic St. Louis project at the Missouri Historical Society.