Ken Gewertz, teacher, editor, and longtime staff writer for the Harvard University Gazette, died of cancer on Sept. 7 at his home in Watertown, Mass. He was 63. Gewertz gave 22 years of service to the University. As a reporter for the Gazette, he covered almost every aspect of life at Harvard, concentrating on the arts and the humanities. Graceful prose and quiet erudition distinguished his work. Gentleness and kindness distinguished his life.
Said Thomas Lee at Harvard’s Office for the Arts, “Ken Gewertz was a gently inquisitive man whose modesty and quiet demeanor belied his wealth of knowledge, his breadth of appreciation for the arts and other subjects, and his elegant way with prose. No matter the subject, he always approached his writing assignments with a deep sense of Harvard’s mission to connect us to each other through the power of knowledge and creative thinking. Ken’s legacy will be the 20-plus years of chronicling many of those extraordinary connections, and acknowledging the people who made them possible.”
Kenneth Lee Gewertz was born Feb. 11, 1945, in the Bronx, New York, and spent most of his childhood in Floral Park, Queens. His father was an industrial chemist, his mother a homemaker. From a young age, Gewertz knew he wanted to be a writer: He read voraciously and as early as high school, he was sending off stories and poems to journals. Some of his early — and later — poems described fishing trips with a beloved grandfather as well as teenaged forays to places like Coney Island and Rockaway Beach.
Gewertz graduated from Queens College in 1966, majoring in English. From there, he studied English in a Ph.D. program at Princeton University. His daughter Alexis was born in 1969. He left Princeton “ABD” in 1970. His first teaching job was at the University of Hawaii, where he stayed for a couple of semesters.
The following year, Gewertz returned to New York City where he worked for several academic publishers as an editor and ghostwriter.
Gewertz then moved to western Massachusetts where he wrote textbooks at Western New England College, and at Merriam-Webster Dictionary in the Connecticut River Valley. It was at Merriam-Webster that he met Sheila Murray; they married in 1983.
During this period, Gewertz continued to write fiction and poetry, publishing his work in the Paris Review, Ploughshares, the Carleton Miscellany, and other journals, magazines, and newspapers.
In 1982, Gewertz received the prestigious O. Henry Award for the short story “I Thought of Chatterton, The Marvelous Boy,” which had been published the year before in the Massachusetts Review.
After a two-year stint as editor of Washington University in St. Louis Magazine from 1983 to 1985, Gewertz and his family came back East for good, where he worked briefly as an editor at Northeastern University before joining the staff of the Harvard University Gazette in 1986.
At the Gazette, Gewertz turned his deep learning and practiced prose to touting the accomplishments of the Harvard academic community, producing profiles and news stories on philosophers, artists, musicians, scientists, economists, historians, and more. His work was succinct yet comprehensive; his understanding was profound but his writing was always accessible and engaging. Tall, gentle, wryly witty, Gewertz possessed an-almost-Old World elegance that coexisted comfortably with an egalitarian sensibility that friends, colleagues, and strangers alike were drawn to.
William Cromie, former science writer for the Gazette and longtime colleague of Gewertz, recalled, “I was never so choked with a deadline that I wasn’t glad to see Ken. And he seemed to feel the same way when I’d walk unannounced into his book-cluttered office. We let our intellects run around together. Our talks were never very personal or at all spiritual, but they contained elements of both. They blew fresh air into my brain. It was always easier to find better ‘ledes’ and sentences after a visit with Ken.”
Terry Murphy, managing editor of the Gazette, said, “As a journalist, Ken had the unique ability to approach a complex, deeply intellectual topic and produce a story that could seamlessly engage Harvard academia while entertaining and educating a wider audience. It must be said,” she added, “that deadlines were never Ken’s friend (and patience was never my virtue). Just before my final threat, a story would appear that often left me praising him. ‘Worth the wait,’ I’d hear myself saying.”
A music (particularly jazz) lover, enthusiastic walker of his two standard poodles, and frequent traveler, Gewertz was also a loving husband and father. In 1997, he suffered a grievous loss when his daughter Alexis was killed in a traffic accident.
In the final difficult years of his life, Gewertz remained a considerate and dedicated colleague, stoical in his suffering and devoted to his friends and co-workers, and to his beloved wife Sheila.
Gewertz is survived by his wife and his brother, Daniel Gewertz.
A memorial service will be held at the Memorial Church at Harvard University on Oct. 24 at 3 p.m.