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Thursday, March 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:41 A.M.

Black-college fund richer thanks to UW scholar

By Sharon Pian Chan
Seattle Times staff reporter

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
George Wallerstein, a retired University of Washington astronomy professor who now teaches part time, has raised millions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund.
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George Wallerstein is a philanthropic conundrum. Son of German immigrants, the University of Washington professor has lived the modest life of a scholar, studying the stars for the past 50 years. He also has raised millions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund.

In more than 20 years, Wallerstein has amassed about $4.5 million for the fund, which supports minorities in higher education. In 1995, he established an endowment to create the Henry C. McBay research fellowship for professors. He has personally contributed $2.2 million.

Tonight in New York, the United Negro College Fund will present the President's Award to Wallerstein and his wife, Julie Lutz, for their contributions to diversity.

Wallerstein grew up in New York City during the Great Depression, the son of a chemist father and a mother who took care of the family.

At 125 pounds, he was too small to play football in high school, so he started boxing. He won the senior class boxing award and aspired to compete in the Golden Gloves.

When his coach passed him over for another boxer, he went to Brown University in Rhode Island to get his bachelor's degree. While there, he became a boxing coach to African-American kids at a community center.

"If you were brought up in New York in the '30s and '40s, you saw the difference between middle-class whites, where I came from, and lower-class blacks, where they came from," Wallerstein said. If you were black, "you could get a job as an elevator operator or a porter on a car. You couldn't get other kinds of jobs. You were excluded."

After college, Wallerstein joined the Navy to serve in the Korean War, then got his doctorate in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In 1965, after a few years teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, he moved to Seattle to join the UW's three-person astronomy department.

In more than 50 years, he has published 250 papers, studying what stars are made of. One of his experiments used the Hubble Telescope to examine interstellar gas clouds.

He chaired the UW's astronomy department for 15 years and received the Henry Norris Russell Award from the American Astronomical Society, the highest honor a U.S. astronomer can win for lifetime achievement. He retired from the UW in 1998 but still teaches part time.

In his spare time, he climbed mountains. Wallerstein organized expeditions to the Yukon to make the first ascent of several peaks. He climbed K2 in the Himalayas and set off a geological controversy when he took preliminary measurements indicating that the second-tallest mountain in the world might be taller than Mount Everest. (The measurements later were disproved.)

Now 74, he still makes weekly climbs to the top of Tiger Mountain near Issaquah.

He had contributed to the United Negro College Fund for several years when he realized he could bring in a lot more money by simply asking other people for it. Some of his former classmates were members of families who had established foundations.

Most has gone toward general support for colleges and universities. The United Negro College Fund provides financial aid to students and raises operating funds for its 39 member colleges and universities.

Wallerstein realized that many professors at black teaching colleges didn't have time for research because their teaching loads were so heavy.

While promotions are not tied to research at many teaching colleges, research is crucial to a professor's standing in the academic field.

So in 1995, Wallerstein created an endowment to provide research grants and named it the Henry C. McBay fellowship, after an African-American professor who headed the chemistry department at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

After 20 years of support for the United Negro College Fund, Wallerstein remains matter of fact about his contributions.

"It's just a matter of luck that I went to school with the right people," he said.

Sharon Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com


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