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Helped Shape The University Of Hartford

Extraordinary Life

Anne M. Hamilton

April 07, 2013

David Komisar helped transform Hillyer College into the University of Hartford and develop it into a respected residential institution that draws 7,400 students from 45 states and 49 countries. He was the school's longest-serving chief academic officer, and when he retired, he was named provost emeritus.

"David Komisar played a leading role in making the University of Hartford what it is today," said university President Walter Harrison. "He cast a long shadow as an academic leader and helped shape our profile as an institution devoted to teaching and research."

Komisar, a former resident of West Hartford, died on March 19 of complications of a broken hip in Silver Spring, Md., where he had been living since 2006. He was 95.

He was born on July 20, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up "in extreme poverty," said his daughter, June Komisar. His two older siblings were born in Russia before his parents emigrated. His father, Jacob, was a tailor, but during the Depression his business faltered.

His intelligence earned him a place at Townsend Harris, a Queens, N.Y., public high school for gifted children. The school was considered a feeder for the City College of New York, where tuition was free. He finished high school in three years, and graduated from college in 1937, again after only three years.

He joined the Army in 1943 and was sent to England, where he lived through the London bombings and was assigned to work as a vocational rehabilitation specialist. He was part of a team that evaluated injured troops in order to decide where they should be sent. He also worked with seriously injured troops to determine if their combat wounds merited a discharge.

After the war ended, there was a delay in repatriating thousands of troops, so he taught at a college set up for demobilized U.S. soldiers awaiting their orders to return to the States. He enjoyed being an enlisted man teaching officers who normally outranked him.

Komisar's own return to the U.S. was delayed, so he took advantage of the time and took courses at the University of Glasgow and the Sorbonne in Paris, where he perfected his French. (At home, he spoke Yiddish with his parents.)

After he returned, he took advantage of the GI Bill to enroll in Columbia University to get his doctorate in psychology. He worked while going to school. He was first director of guidance at Mohawk College in Utica, N.Y., and then chairman of the psychology department of Champlain College in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

In 1953, after he had earned his degree, he accepted a job at Hillyer College in Hartford, which had been established in 1877. He was the first person in the newly created psychology department, and worked to build it up. In 1957, Hillyer merged with the Hartford Art School and the Hartt School of Music to form the University of Hartford. Komisar became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1966 and dean of the faculty the following year. In 1970, he was made vice president for academic affairs, and in 1972 became the university provost, a position he held until 1980.

"His biggest passion was for education -- not just for the elites," said his daughter, "but people who needed a second chance."

Komisar was a strong advocate for establishing the College of Basic Studies, which provides remedial help for students whose skills need improvement. It has now been renamed Hillyer College.

"He really professionalized the function of the chief academic officer," said Charles Condon, general counsel emeritus and university secretary. "He thought of himself as first and foremost a teacher and related [well] to the faculty. ... He was really at the core of moving the place forward."

Komisar remained grateful for the opportunities he had been given, and was very upbeat. "He had little patience for people who didn't have any enthusiasm about what they were doing," said Condon. "He got frustrated with someone he considered a malcontent."

The 1960s saw a huge leap in enrollment at the university, and Komisar pushed for the establishment of dormitories, to change the emphasis from commuter school to residential college. He recruited part-time faculty, and advocated for the consolidation of five separate libraries into what is now the Mortensen Library. In 1977, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was named university president, succeeding Archibald Woodruff.

Komisar "agreed to stay on," said Trachtenberg, who went on to become president of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "That gave the faculty reassurance that this youngish, perhaps too brash young man" -- Trachtenberg was referring to himself -- wasn't going to make radical changes.

Komisar's desire to improve the university and make it better known coincided with Trachtenberg's. "He wanted to make it more of a national and international university and push the faculty a little more than they were used to. He provided a North Star for them and for me," Trachtenberg said.

Standards were tightened in hiring and tenure decisions and admissions. "It's a much more robust place now than it used to be," Trachtenberg said. "David provided a very good right arm."

Komisar stepped down as provost in 1980 -- he had taught psychology courses all during his administrative positions -- and he continued to teach until he retired in 1984. His primary interests teaching and research were counseling, mental retardation and vocational rehabilitation.

He had a house in Florida, and for 22 years taught a class in memory and intelligence at the Center for Lifetime Learning at Palm Beach Community College. By the time he retired from that voluntary position, he had been a teacher for 58 years, his son said.

As a young man, Komisar had a summer job at a Catskills resort, where he waited tables and worked backstage during theatrical productions. He met Beatrice Liebman, who was vacationing there, and they married in 1940 and had two children. After his wife died in 1981, Komisar married Molly Rosenberg, who died in 2006.

Komisar was a modest and somewhat frugal man. He kept his cars until they fell apart in a shower of rust. He lived simply, but enjoyed entertaining and cooked elaborate Sunday lunches for his family and friends. Having grown up in the city, he enjoyed his garden, where he grew tomatoes.

For years, he was part of a university poker group that played seriously for ridiculously small pots.

His professional training made him acutely aware of people's feelings, and his daughter recalled his approach after big kids smashed her Halloween pumpkin. He immediately went to the store to buy one of the few remaining pumpkins for his sobbing 8-year-old. "He was a very emotionally involved father," said June Komisar. "That struck me as a very sensitive thing to do."

He also enjoyed sailing his sailboat on Marlboro Lake, played golf and stayed fit.

The university awarded Komisar its Medal for Distinguished Service in 1990. He also served as president of the Connecticut Valley Psychology Association and consultant to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He also served as a member of the Connecticut State Committee on Mental Retardation Planning and the Connecticut Citizens Commission on State Welfare. He was a member of the Hartford Jewish Community Center, and served as vice president from 1963-1978.

Komisar is survived by his two children.

"He added a great deal of value to the university," Trachtenberg said. "He had a great career."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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