Maxine Schorr Van de Wetering Profile Photo
1934 Maxine 2023

Maxine Schorr Van de Wetering

July 27, 1934 — September 8, 2023


Maxine Schorr Van de Wetering, was born Madija Jehanne Schorr, later anglicized to Maxine Jane Schorr, on July 27, circa 1934, probably in New York City.  Raised in a tenement, times were tough.  Maxine and her brother slept head-to-foot in the same bed because there was not enough space in the 4th floor walk-up for separate beds, let alone bedrooms.  Her mother, Gussy, taught her – as the other little Jewish girls in Manhattan also learned – to walk straight down the middle of the sidewalk.  Too close to the building, and you could be grabbed by someone inside.  Too close to the street and you could be grabbed by someone in a car.  She painted a picture of single-file lines of bundled-up little Jewish girls walking down the exact middle of the sidewalk.  As was so often true, both in the classroom and out, the story as she told it was mesmerizing, simultaneously funny and poignant, genuinely sweet and light, but with the most serious of undertones for Jews in the 1930s and 40s.

At age 14 she picked up and left.  She ran away from her home and what was left of her family (two of her four brothers had been killed in a car wreck, and a third, the identical twin to one of the two killed in the car wreck, left to travel in the Far East and was never heard from again), and headed to Philadelphia, which was, importantly to her, the home of the Phillies.  She found an apartment fairly close to the ballpark, got a job in a window factory, and enrolled herself in high school.  When her parents followed her not long after, she worked for them briefly in the soda-fountain they bought, but she soon fled again, this time to Los Angeles and the home of her Aunt Rosie.

In L.A. Maxine completed high school, a brief process after the fine education she had received in New York public schools.  In order to graduate from Beverly Hills High she had to take only two classes that had not been offered in New York – Driver’s Ed, and Senior Problems.  Following high school, she enrolled at UCLA, where she completed a bachelor's degree in History.  She and friends also spent time traveling regularly to Berkeley for the substantial intellectual offerings there.  She enjoyed Berkeley so much that she earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal in Physics.

From California, Maxine headed north to the University of Washington, where she studied for a Ph.D. in the History of Science.  She was seeking an opportunity to study with Harry Woolf, an historian who later became the director of the Advanced Institute at Princeton.  Woolf was at UW, so that is where Maxine went.  Professor Woolf also had an officemate in those days – John Van de Wetering, newly minted historian of colonial America.  Maxine noticed him.  He noticed her.  And so, they did what is strictly prohibited now – the professor and the student began to date.  Then they moved in together, a virtually unheard-of act for a young couple in 1960.  It was not the last time Jack (as he was sometimes known) and Max (as she was sometimes, against her will, known) would go their own way.

Maxine continued to work on her Ph.D. at Washington while John continued to teach.  He took a job at the University of Montana, and the two married and headed to Missoula.  Maxine, by her own telling, cried for the entire first year.  Especially for a girl from the center of New York, by way of the center of L.A., Missoula was a small backwater, with little in the way of cultural offerings and three teepee burners pumping smoke into the air virtually non-stop.  She continued to work on her Ph.D, though, and when John took a temporary assignment back in Seattle at UW (and a leave from his UM job), she was not complaining.  Once back, she found she had a enormous craving for oysters, and sent John throughout Puget Sound for the freshest offerings.  That’s right – a food craving. Yes, that’s right!  She was pregnant.  Little John Van de Wetering III (as he was never, ever known) was born and immediately given the nickname, Josh (as he was always known, so much so that he legally changed his first name to Joshua when he became an adult).

Within a few months the young family moved back to Missoula, purchasing a small house on Keith (for $16,000 for those marveling at Missoula home prices).  Maxine settled in to raising her new son, working on her dissertation, and inviting in young religious missionaries for pointed discussions about their understanding of their own religion and its greater implications.  It is likely they were challenged to describe where they would place “virtue” in their universe, and what it meant.  (She continued this habit to the week of her death, grilling the hospital chaplain – to whom she referred as the “spiritualist” – who unwittingly visited her hospital room to ask if she had any spiritual needs.)

By the early 1970s, when Maxine completed her Ph.D., she had received faculty appointments in several departments, beginning with Geology, passing through History (where she could not stay as John had become chair) and on to Philosophy and Humanities.  It was no mean feat in those days, for a woman to receive a faculty appointment.  Indeed, Maxine’s appointment directly challenged the University’s rule prohibiting nepotism, and the general sexism of the day.  As always, the petite professor with the lion’s heart did not back down.  She was a professor, and determined to prove she belonged.

She published, and she pulled her weight on faculty committees and such.  But her first and true love was teaching.  She loved the classroom, the challenge of delivering a cogent, provocative lecture, and handling the students’ questions. She loved the give and take among the students, and the performance aspect of it all. But most of all, she loved the students.  Especially the good ones.  She loved to challenge them and see how they would hold up.  She would pose difficult problems, and guide their thinking as they worked the problems.  She would critique their writing, and work to bring them along, and assign reading designed to challenge their worldview and help them grow.  Good work on a paper or exam would net one a good grade; poor work would net one a poor grade.  And passable work from a student who could do better, from a student with real promise, but who needed polishing?  That student could expect to be confused.  What kind of grade is a B - - -?  Answer:  it is the grade for the student she needed to be honest with, but whom she wanted to inspire to do better.  As she knew the student could.

When young women students like Diane Sands and Judy Smith wanted to start a women’s studies department, they turned to Maxine for help, and she responded.  She took the idea to the faculty, got their support, and started the program.  She planned classes under the women’s studies banner, but also enlisted faculty from a variety of departments to cross-list relevant courses with Women’s Studies, and to include greater content exploring the lives and contributions of women.

Maxine also became deeply involved with the Rhodes Scholarship program, helping UM students obtain the world’s most prestigious scholarship.  The work fit her well.  She engaged with students directly, bringing prospective candidates to her office, assigning them extra reading and writing, having deep, complex intellectual discussions with them, making them defend their positions, and helping them to mature in their intellect.  She presented oral problems to solve, particularly around morality, and helped them understand and shape their contribution to our world.  She helped them formulate answers for the interview portion of the competition for scholarships, even helping them dress for the interview.  Somewhere there is the “lucky jumper,” worn by several of the successful women candidates. The coaching and the work she and other faculty put in paid off.  UM began cranking out Rhodes winners at a pace second only to Harvard at one point.

In 1977, John was appointed acting president of Eastern Montana College (now MSUB) in Billings.  While he moved off to Billings to begin his new career, she stayed behind in Missoula to continue hers.  A woman not following her husband to his new job?  The president’s wife not at home to handle wifely duties on behalf of the president?  It was a scandal!  As always, she did not back down.  She patiently explained that she had her career, and she intended to keep it.  And no, she and John were not having trouble in their marriage, thank you.  And she stuck to that when John was named permanent president a year later, and in 1981 when he took a new presidency, this one at SUNY Brockport, near Rochester, NY.  Maxine, continued her teaching career while John went to Rochester, though she spent summers in Rochester, joined him for a sabbatical year and also took leave a couple of times to make extended stays in Rochester.

In 1994, after many years apart, Maxine retired and moved permanently to Rochester to be with John.  Her friends warned her that she would be bored.  She assured them she would not be.  Her goal, she announced, was to “perfect sloth.”  She was right.  Not about the sloth, as she did stay busy.  But she was not bored.  She joined an investment group and a lunch-time literary group, where she regularly presented papers.  She cooked (one of her true loves, and one that loved her back; she was amazing in the kitchen).  She socialized.  She contributed to her world.

John, the love of her life, contracted Alzheimer’s disease in his 80s, a tragic turn both for him and for Maxine, who was robbed of his fine mind which she had admired and loved for so long.  It was hard, but she was by his side the whole time, the love of his life, until he passed on November 2, 2020.  After that she moved home to Missoula to be close to her family, a decision for which we are all grateful as it was a time of reuniting, rediscovery, and new stories learned. The end came quickly, relatively painlessly, and not without humor, surrounded by family, as she wished.  We will miss her.

Maxine gave a speech at UM Charter Day, part of which was later quoted in an article by Connie Poten in the Montanan.  It well sums up what mattered to Maxine, and how she met herself and forged her career in what mattered to her: “A liberal education is necessary and never extravagant for the continuance of the Republic.  To be educated is to need to be heard.  Our nation must hear many voices, to recognize the significance of knowledge as a precursor to wise and noble action.”

That article can be found here:  The family expects to have a celebration of life for both Maxine and John in the summer of 2024.  

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