The Pitt News

Wesley Posvar: A man of finance, football, family

By Meagan Hart / Staff Writer

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Editor’s Note: This profile of former Pitt Chancellor Wesley Posvar is the first in a series on individuals who helped shape the history of Pitt and Pittsburgh, who might otherwise not be well-known by current Pitt students.

In order to become chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Wesley Posvar had to let his wife handle his interview attire.  

“He had the most God-awful conglomeration of clothing. He wanted to wear his uniform but this was not the time. In fact, most of the staff did not want to meet him because he was [in the military],” Mildred, Posvar’s wife and a world-renowned opera singer, said. 

Mildred called up Brooks Brothers in New York City, as she was in town, singing at the [Metropolitan Opera] and “people knew me.”

“I told them I needed an instant-suit. We dressed him in a pinstripe suit, and he looked almost decent. So, we let him go,” she said. 

Perhaps because of his wife’s special-ordered suit, Posvar became the 15th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating first in his class from West Point in 1946, Posvar became a brigadier general in the United States Air Force. He received his bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1951 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in political science in 1964. After Pitt offered him the position of chancellor in 1967, he served until his retirement in 1991.

Following his death in 2001, his wife found a note that Posvar had written when he was 15 years old. It stated: “What good is life without a purpose? I, Wesley Posvar, on this the 17th day of February in the Year of our Lord 1940, pledge that I will endeavor to fulfill any task that will be beneficial to and to pledge every color ever existing in the control of my own hands including the sacrifice of life and fortune to those immortal ideals of liberty, justice, fellowship, equality, education and the preservation of a democratic America and world. I will eradicate every influence contrary to those ideals with ruthless determination.”

Mildred said the note provides an accurate representation of Posvar’s character.

“He was a public servant. He gave all of himself to whatever it was, and it just happened to be education,” Mildred said.

He stayed true to his stated childhood goals, and when Posvar became chancellor, Pitt needed help dealing with many internal and external problems. 

Pitt had accumulated a $27 million debt through endowment funds, life insurance, research grants and construction capital, according to a book by Robert C. Alberts, titled “Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987.” 

There had also been student unrest and non-peaceful protests on many campuses around the country, starting with the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, due to Vietnam War protests and a lack of student involvement and power in schools. 

In addition, many school administrators weren’t too sure about Posvar due to his military background, as his views might have clashed with the many anti-war mindsets at the school, according to his wife. 

Despite doubters, Posvar got to work. 

Fiscal problems took first priority. By personally controlling the allocation of funds and budgeting, updating the operating systems and procedures and finding non-state benefactors, Posvar eradicated the debt. He replaced the School of Liberal Arts with the School of Arts and Sciences to include all social sciences, natural sciences and humanities under one dean. He did the same with the Office of Student Affairs, according to Alberts’ book. 

According to his wife, Posvar believed that improving Pitt’s sports teams would raise funding from alumni. 

His son, also named Wesley Posvar, who has been a football season ticket holder since 1975, remembers how passionate his father was about Pitt sports.

“If Pitt lost, I didn’t call home that night because I knew how strongly my dad felt about it,” he said. “He almost took it personally. He was very focused on making Pitt known for sports. He talked about wanting [championship] gold watches up and down his arms.”

Soon after Posvar became chancellor, students began to demand more power in decision-making and government. 

In response, according to Alberts’ book, Posvar told the students in 1968 that he “strongly believes in student participation in the decision-making and formulating policy. Students are underrepresented. Many questions facing us could be better answered with a continuing input of student opinion and advice.” 

Posvar followed his words with actions. In September 1968, he announced that deans must allow the student cabinet to give policy-making and curriculum advice. Student academic councils were also formed to meet regularly under the chairman of an assistant provost. 

A chancellor and a father, Posvar had to meet the needs of the kids at home in addition to the students at work.

He met his wife when Mildred was studying to be an opera singer in Boston, Mass., and Posvar was a test pilot in Florida.

“He flew up with a whole crew. The crew was bragging about the girls they knew that they were going to call up in Boston,” Mildred said. “He didn’t know any, so he called up his friend who told him that Milly Miller was studying there.”

Posvar called Mildred, and she came with the crew to get Chinese food. 

“Turns out, he was the only one of them who could get a girl to come,” she said. “I remember his commanding officer telling him ‘You’re gonna marry that girl.’”

A few years later, he proposed to Mildred on New Year’s Eve in Munich. They married in Germany in 1949 and were married for 52 years until he died from heart failure while swimming with his grandchildren in 2001.

“He supported me without trying to force me into any particular dream,” his son said. “My mother was often travelling a lot due to her profession, so there were times when he was the primary parent. He was also very supportive of my mother, which influenced our view of her time away from home.”

Posvar instilled his love of Pitt and Pittsburgh in his children, as they all still live in the city and have children of their own.

“It meant the world. He was very proud of Pitt. Proud of the advancement that it had made in his tenure. He came when it was totally bankrupt, and in the two or three years, the debt was paid,” Mildred said. “We were very happy to move here. We had moved 13 times. When we came to Pittsburgh, we felt we had come home.”

 

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Wesley Posvar: A man of finance, football, family