Walter Grunwald’s story was almost forgotten. Almost. A chance phone call ensured that the legacy of the Holocaust survivor, war hero and education professor will continue to inspire.
November 11, 2015
We need to remember. It’s why we set aside a day each November to honor our veterans; so we can remember those who dedicate themselves to service. Yet time passes, and life moves forward, and sometimes even the stories of those who have lived the most extraordinary lives, can be forgotten.
That was almost the case for Walter Grunwald. His story was dangerously close to being forgotten, not by his family, of course, but by the university where he once served as an education professor.
A chance phone call changed that. The caller was Grunwald’s daughter, Elizabeth Boggess, who hoped to honor her deceased father’s wish to have his name added to a memorial plaque on campus.
The call came as a surprise to School of Education Dean Elizabeth Hinde. “I’d never heard his name,” she confessed. “I didn’t even know we had a plaque on campus. But I knew I needed to learn more.” So, she and her staff began digging.
Grunwald’s life, it turns out, was nothing short of extraordinary.
He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1920. As a young man, he was forced to flee the country to escape the Nazi occupation. Most of his family members – including his parents – were killed in the Holocaust. He and his grandmother survived.
He sought refuge in what was then called Palestine – soon to be renamed Israel. There, he joined the Jewish Brigade, formed by the British Army.
“He didn’t talk too much about that time,” said son Michael Grunwald. “But from the stories he did share, I know that he was dedicated to helping Jewish refugees and served as something like a spy. It was extremely dangerous work, but he saved many lives.”
In 1947, Walter Grunwald migrated to the United States. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Army Air Corps, which was soon to become the U.S. Air Force. He served his adopted country for more than 20 years. Amazingly, during that time he also took night classes, earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and ultimately, his doctoral degree.
By the time he retired from the Air Force in 1969, he had offers to teach at prestigious universities across the country. He chose MSU Denver, then a small, urban college only recently established, because he wanted to work in progressive education.
“He was very concerned with improving people’s lives and saw education as a way to do that,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Boggess. “Teaching was incredibly important to him. He wanted to expand and broaden students’ perspectives.”
Walter Grunwald taught for 19 years at MSU Denver, retiring as a full professor in 1988 and earning professor emeritus status in 1991. His admiration for the institution rubbed off on his children, who both wound up attending and graduating from MSU Denver. Among other achievements across two decades in academia, he was named a Fulbright Scholar and studied in his hometown of Vienna, Austria.
He also made an impression on one young instructor who joined the faculty in the late ’80s. Lupe Martinez, an associate professor of education, recalls Grunwald as a humble man, who didn’t talk much about his achievements, but who cared deeply about student success.
“He refused to spoon feed the students,” Martinez recalled. “He knew that they needed to be prepared to be critical and creative thinkers in the world, so he challenged them to reach a higher level. It was inspiring.”
And then there was the whole matter of the plaque. Shortly after the Auraria Campus was established in 1975, Grunwald created the memorial and paid for it to be installed out of his own pocket. He wanted to remember the educators who had gone before him. He told his daughter that when his time came, he wanted his name added to the list.
This past September, two years after Walter Grunwald’s passing, he got his wish. With his family in attendance, along with University faculty and staff, his name was added to the plaque as part of a memorial service. Testimonials were shared. Tears were shed. And the community remembered. They remembered the legacy of a man who dedicated his life to serving his family, his country and his students.