Former Brooklyn College Philosopher Turns Philanthropist

Walter Cerf
The largest single bequest in Brooklyn College’s more than 70-year history—$6.5 million—has just been received from the estate of Walter Cerf, a philanthropist and former professor of philosophy at the College. It is to be divided equally among the Departments of Theater and Art and the Conservatory of Music.

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. (Cerf’s estate also distributed $6.5 million bequests to Princeton University and Israel’s 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 Cerf’s 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 Cerf’s 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. “Walter’s 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.

Contents October 2002

$7.5M State Grant Launches Incubator Network

Students Reaping Benefits of Technology Fee

Georgian Elegance, 21st-Century Technology Joined in Reborn Brooklyn College Library

Launching LaGuardia Students Toward Animal Planet

From ’60s Activist Ranks to Executive Suite

Digging the City’s Past

Poet Laureate Collins Takes his Cue on Evil

A WWII Mobilization in The Tale of The Ticker

Subversive Feminist Julia De Burgos Celebrated at Hostos

Italian "Enemy Alien" Experience in WWWII

Museum at Queens College Spans Six Centuries of Art

Celebrating Scholarly “Pleasures of the Mind”

Valued Vets Toasted at the Central Office

CUNY Responds to Powell’s Call for More Minority Diplomats

LaGuardia and Lehman Honored for Freshman Year Programs

Former Brooklyn College Philosopher Turns Philanthropist