Remembering Professor Daniel Walden

Earlier this month, Penn State University lost a true legend. Daniel Walden, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, died Friday, November 8, 2013 at Mount Nittany Medical Center at age 91, after a brief illness. 2319566Arriving on campus in 1966 — the same year Joe Paterno became Penn State’s head football coach—Walden was a faculty member at Penn State until 1988. Whether he ever really retired is a matter of some debate though. Writer Cynthia Ozick paid tribute to Walden at the time in an article fittingly titled “Remarks on Dan Walden’s Retirement (Even Though He Is Tireless and Didn’t Retire and Never Will!)”

Walden remained a familiar and beloved presence on campus, as he continued to teach one course each semester, alternating between the departments of English and Comparative Literature. He was able to teach for two weeks  this semester (a course on ethnicity and literature)  before his ailing health prevented him from continuing.

When someone has lived a long and productive life, it is impossible to summarize them. The task takes many years and many people, many conversations and recollections, all adding up to a rich kaleidoscopic perspective. The abundance of articles on, interviews with and tributes to Dan Walden are a testament to the multifaceted life he lived.

Some pieces touch on his Philadelphia childhood and family; some on his Army experiences and his pre-academia career as a Broadway singer (including a 1949 role in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin) while others focus on his degrees from the City College of New York, Columbia University and New York University. Almost always mentioned prominently are his pioneering works such as On Being Black: African American Literature from Douglass to the Present (1970), with Charles Davis, and On Being Jewish: Jewish American Literature from Cahan to Bellow (1974.)

No article on Walden’s career would be complete without noting that he founded the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature in 1975 and served continuously as its editor from then into 2011. SAJL was published by Purdue University but as of 2012 will be published by Penn State University Press.


In 1984 Walden published “The World of Chaim Potok,” a whole issue of SAJL. The following year, he published Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers (Greenwood Press), DLB 28. Conversations with Chaim Potok came out in 2002 (University Press of Mississippi).

While these academic achievements are impressive,  they don’t begin to capture the full impact of Dan Walden’s life on the people who knew him. The outpouring of online condolences are filled with remarks such as these:

“Professor Walden, your life was a model for what I hope mine to be: one of curiosity, generosity, and love. Thank you.”

“He achieved so incredibly much but managed to remain one of the most generous and sweet human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He was a good and kind man, and his smile lit up the whole world.”

“He served as an inspiration to us on how to lead a good life.”

“What a life; what a legacy. Many of us who were graduate students in the Department of English in the 1980s considered the Walden residence to be our home. Some of us were international students, thousands of miles away from home and family, and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. My friends and I knew that when money was short (which was most of the time) and we could not return to Europe or to India, we had a seat at the Waldens’ Thanksgiving table.”

Many of these comments pay tribute to Dan’s beloved wife Bea Walden, who passed away exactly two years ago today  and who is remembered with great fondness by so many. The warmth and devotion of their marriage and generosity of their home comes through so many of the remembrances.

Professor Willa Silverman shared with me this poignant and telling recollection of Dan and Bea:

“Dan and Bea Walden were among the first people I met when I came to Penn State in 1988. I contacted Dan when I came to look for a place to live…He took me under his wing, driving me around wherever I needed to go, bringing me to his home for meals (which I remember as being lively, busy, warm, with people bustling in and out). He showed me extraordinary kindness as a new colleague and newcomer to Penn State. As many others know, Dan was an exemplary, generous, supportive colleague, who would always write a note of congratulations and encouragement on any ‘milestone’ (promotion, book published etc.). A pillar of our Jewish community, he always tried to attend milestone events of other members of our congregation. He was instrumental in the developing the Jewish Studies Program at Penn State, contributing his vision, time, energy, human qualities (his commitment to social justice and to the equal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities), and scholarly expertise. That the program is a thriving unit today is in good part a testament to Dan’s commitment to it.”

My own connection with Dan was as a friend of his family. I’ll always treasure the chats we had, and I can only imagine how much those closest to him will miss him. I hope they’ll take solace in knowing that, as associate professor of journalism Russell Frank recently wrote, a university is made truly great by luminaries such as Daniel Walden whose brilliance–not only as a scholar but as someone with true empathy and devotion to his fellow human beings— gives us all cause for “Penn State pride” in that slogan’s truest sense.

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