In Memoriam: Dr. Miriam K. Deitsch

Today we lost our former Chair of Sociology and Anthropology, the creator and Director of the Social Science Research Center, as well as the only course on Social Justice at the college. She was the person who hired me and one of the most inspiring, frustrating, generous, boundary breaking people I’ve known. A mensch, a nudge, a macher, and meshuga. She drove me crazy as a new hire because she had no boundaries when she liked someone, calling at 10 PM on weekends, insinuating herself into areas that we introverts prefer to keep closed. I can tell you that it was more than concerning that she had such little regard for certain proprieties, and we banged heads often. But my determination to be respected and to protect others when I thought she was wrong won not only her respect, but her trust because she knew that I’d never lie to her or go behind her back. Anything I had to say, she heard it first, and because of that, I became a sounding board for new ideas and rants. There was a closeness between us that weathered the ups and downs, so when she called to say she needed me, there was no question that I would do my best to be there for her.
Mimi was incredibly generous to students and took many a stray under her wing. A staunch defender of students and underdogs, she was also a skilled political animal who knew how to work the system to get what she wanted to make the world better, as she understood it. She had a hand in almost every program at the college that connected to human & civil rights, the environment, and mental health initiatives.
Our relationship was complex and sometimes fraught, but I knew that her deepest wish was to see a world where no one went without and where every human had access to the tools and support that allows them to flourish. When she knew that she had hurt someone, she was genuinely contrite and humble in a way that has become too rare in our superficial world. She was not a perfect being, but she was divinely human in her passion, determination, fierceness, and love. Mimi could write the most flowery compliments and drip honey covered words of appreciation and encouragement with the same mouth that would curse like a sailor and cackle with glee if you were shocked by it. I think she enjoyed her own contradictions immensely and amused herself by being herself. She admired and loved her children, adored her grandchildren, and created extended family with every semester and each batch of new students. She was loved by many, from the maintenance staff to the people at the highest levels of SUNY. It was quite fitting that our President went to her hospital room and bestowed the college’s highest honor, the Farmingdale State College Distinguished Service Award. Mimi was first woman and only the seventh person to receive this in the College’s 108-year history. Although she would say that such honors were unimportant, in reality she was quite proud of herself, and deservedly so. On a recent visit, I told her that if SUNY ever completed plans to build a Social Science Hall at the college, it should be named for her, and without hesitation she nodded in agreement. She earned every honor she received and was that rare woman who knew her worth.

On the last day that I saw her, she was small and radiantly beautiful, despite the intermittent pain that came between the morphine drips. Without makeup and her hair pulled up, her exquisite features and lively eyes were clearly exposed. Unable to sustain conversation and losing the desire to eat, it was painfully clear that the end was not too far off, even though anyone who knew her also expected that she would somehow turn around and make a complete recovery. But on that day she was tired and angry and frustrated with these new limits. Taking her hand, I tried to soothe her, acknowledging the frustration I saw in her face and trying my best to reassure and joke with her. It then occurred to me to ask if she would like me to curse for her, and her eyebrows raised, first in surprise, then in pure delight as I let out a string of curses appropriate to the moment. I cursed her current “enemy”, calling her “The demented and evil daughter of a diseased vagina.”
That remarkable pronouncement elicited a look of complete surprise that quickly turned to mirth and laughter that shone from her eyes. Squeezing my hand, she whispered “Bitch, bitch, bitch” and seemed deeply satisfied with herself and the whole exercise. The very gentle work friend with whom I’d ridden for this visit managed to put away her own shock and joined in, asking if Mimi would like her to “say the C word,” much to Dr. D’s delight.
She grew tired after that, but looked satisfied and peaceful, and we soon made our way out of the ICU. It was the last time I saw her, as my own medical issues prevented my next planned visit, but her beloved cousin read my texts to her, so she knew that we were thinking of her and that the students she was concerned for wouldn’t be abandoned.
I’m told that she had a gentle passing and had been relieved of her pain. I believe in reincarnation on most days, so I hope that she gets some well deserved rest before she comes back to finish whipping the world into shape.
You touched many, many people for the better, Mimi, and you gave the college a conscience that it sometimes lacked. You fought the good fight till the very end and we are all the better for having known you.
Dr. Miriam K. Deitsch: Presente!

4 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Dr. Miriam K. Deitsch

  1. I found my way here through Dr. Deitsch’s grandson’s Twitter feed. I’m an admirer of his professional work as a journalist and now i am an admirer of his mother’s life’s work as an educator and fierce, relentless advocate for social justice. This was truly a life well lived. Her memory is a blessing, and her legacy will endure for (and among) generations,

      • Dr. Deitsch was a special person. I have worked with her at Farmingdale State College for many. She was a mentor and supporter with a passion for Social Justice. Her legacy will live on. Let us honor her memory with a Scholarship in her name. Dr. Veronica Henry

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