Former Brooklyn College Philosopher Turns Philanthropist
Cerf, who died last year, taught at Brooklyn College from 1948 to 1972. His philanthropic interests included education, historic preservation, and social services, but his overriding love was for the arts. (Cerfs estate also distributed $6.5 million bequests to Princeton University and Israels Weizman Institute for Science.) A gift of this magnitude is of inestimable importance to an underfunded public institution such as Brooklyn College, said Christoph M. Kimmich, president of Brooklyn College.
I am touched by Professor Cerfs attachment to the institution where he made his career and particularly gratified that he has remembered three departments in the fine and performing arts, in which the College takes particular pride.
Cerf was born in 1907 into a prominent and affluent Jewish family in Berlin. His father, a successful businessman, founded the Gesellschaft für Eigentumsschütz, a major European security company. Cerf earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Bonn in 1933 and then taught for three years at the University of Palermo in Italy. He then emigrated to the U.S. to escape growing oppression of Jews. He earned a second Ph.D., also in philosophy, from Princeton University in 1941. During the war, he worked in U.S. military intelligence in Europe, earning a Bronze Star.
Cerf began his teaching at Princeton and the University of Minnesota before his tenure at Brooklyn College. Robert Kraut, who was a student of Cerfs and now professor of philosophy at Ohio State University, recalls, Professor Cerf played a vital role in determining my professional direction. He not only provided dramatic models of what it is to do philosophy well, he was gracious and generous with his time. His celebration of the human condition permeated everything he did.
In 1972, Cerf retired to Leicester, Vermont, its landscape reminding him of the lush German hill country he had left so many decades before. In Vermont, Cerf began his philanthropic activity and soon met Richard Saunders III, the director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art. The close friendship between Cerf and Saunders developed over their shared love of art. Walters life was surrounded by all the arts, but he had no greater love than spending time in an art museum, just staring at a painting, said Mr. Saunders.