Pitt administrators, alumni gather to remember popular professor

By WILL SCHEFF

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Despite the advance of this season’s first winter storm, sunlight shined through the… Despite the advance of this season’s first winter storm, sunlight shined through the stained-glass windows of Heinz Chapel last Thursday afternoon, as friends and family came to eulogize Pitt professor Theodore Otto Windt Jr., who died on Oct. 13.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Dr. Cyril Wecht were among those who spoke about their friendship with Windt. Their comments recalled a man who described himself as a “gentle anarchist,” and who loved Jack Kerouac and the beat poets of the 1960s as much as he respected or despised the former presidents he taught about, all while pioneering the study of presidential rhetoric.

“I cannot adequately describe the lift I’d get from the words of support he would invariably offer,” Nordenberg said. “He was living proof that nice guys can finish first.”

Wecht described the wintry day outside as “cold, blustery, forbidding, unwelcome – the antithesis of Ted Windt, who was warm, friendly, charming, and gracious.” Windt expressed his political views strongly, but “never with rancor – never with a baseless sense of antipathy towards someone because of their politics,” Wecht said.

Windt analyzed the content of presidential speeches in the classes he taught at Pitt for more than 40 years. His book, “Presidential Rhetoric,” published in 1978, is a landmark volume in the field and is now in its sixth edition, according to those at his memorial. Windt had briefly studied theatre while in college, and former student and Carlton restaurant owner Kevin Joyce remembered how he brought that sense of drama to his classes.

“Dr. Windt was a rock star at the university at that time [the Nixon era]. You couldn’t get into his classes. The impeachment hearings, the Vietnam War – what a magical time to be around a guy like Ted Windt,” Joyce said. “You can’t look at a world event in the last 25 years without thinking about it from the perspective of rhetoric. So many of us will always be enriched [by Windt’s teachings].”

Jerome Rosenberg talked about how Windt rose out of poverty in east Texas to create his own field of study. Rosenberg, a former interim chair of Pitt’s department of communication, said Windt’s mother would take him to the store as a child and let him pick out the feed bag they needed for their animals because she would later craft it into a shirt for him.

“Some of the rhetoricians didn’t want to claim him as their own because they said he was too political,” Rosenberg said. “To political scientists, he wasn’t analytical enough. What happened to the outsider who couldn’t be pegged neatly into one field or another? He created a field of his own: presidential rhetoric.”

KQV radio anchor and Pitt teacher P.J. Maloney remembered how Windt, a regular commentator on the radio station, would lean over to him as they worked on election night and “in that East Texas accent he’d say, ‘Who can we make angry tonight?'”

Gerald Shuster, of Pitt’s communication department, a friend and former student of Windt’s who served as master of ceremonies at the memorial service, also had a couple of stories to tell.

Shuster described how Windt had a poster of James Dean on one wall of his office and a poster of Lyndon Johnson on the other – “what a pair,” Shuster said. In between the two hung a large Texas flag.

“Ted would say, ‘think Republican, but vote Democrat,'” Shuster said. “He never gave away his political stances.” Shuster recollected how, during George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign, Windt came to class wearing a huge “Bush” button that someone had given him, which elicited stares from his students. But no one asked him about it, and Shuster remembered Windt saying, “They’re just like Bush – a bunch of wimps. I’m going to have to keep working at them.”

A reception at the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success followed the memorial service. Regina Renk, an undergraduate secretary in the communications department, remembered working with Windt for the last 15 years.

“When he had one of his large classes, he’d walk around with an entourage,” Renk said. “He’d always be the last one to leave, throwing his trench coat over his shoulders. He was a lovely person, a gentleman. Very kind and soft-spoken.”

Renk sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

“I’m really going to miss him,” Renk said. “He went much too soon. There are just some people who should stay in this world longer, because it’s a nicer place with them in it.”

A scholarship fund, which will benefit students enrolled in the communications department, has been created in Windt’s memory. Anyone who is interested in donating can contact the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Institutional Advancement, 917 Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, 15260.

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