As a professor and administrator, Lawrence H. Fuchs helped shape Brandeis University, where he created and led the American studies department, served as dean of faculty, and for 50 years taught classes that were magnets for students, perhaps none more so than a course he led with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Equally adept outside the classroom, he was the first Peace Corps director in the Philippines, worked with Democrats and Republicans in Washington to craft changes in immigration laws, and once engaged in a kind of shuttle diplomacy to thaw the chilly political relationship between Mrs. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who was then a US senator seeking the presidency.
In such one-on-one encounters Dr. Fuchs left his most lasting impressions, whether with family, colleagues, or those he supervised, such as US Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who was just out of college when he worked for him in Washington.
“He became a mentor to me. He gave me tremendous opportunities and entrusted me with responsibilities that were probably beyond my experience and capability, but it forced me to stretch and to learn and to be a better person,” Portman said. “He was also just a remarkable guy. He was a people person who had an extraordinary way of relating to people of all walks of life, and was at the same time a brilliant academic and a smart policy person — a rare combination.”
Dr. Fuchs, the author of books including “The American Kaleidoscope,” an award-winning examination of race and ethnicity in America, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease March 17 in Canton’s Orchard Cove retirement community. He was 86 and previously lived in Weston for many years.
“He was phenomenal at bringing out the best in people,” said his daughter Naomi of Sebastopol, Calif. “Everybody he talked to felt special, felt heard, felt valued, felt they could do something that would make their life important. I know that as a daughter I felt very special, but everybody I’ve been talking to says they had that same experience. He would engage with people at a very deep and meaningful level.”
Through the years Dr. Fuchs extended his reach by working with organizations including the American Jewish Historical Society, the United World Federalists, and the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress. He also was a key board member for Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves, which pioneered a school curriculum that raises awareness about anti-Semitism, racism, and prejudice.
“He brought history alive,” said Margot Strom, the organization’s executive director. “He was a fabulous teacher and storyteller. I started my program and he just latched on like a mentor, like a friend, like a coach.”
Born in New York City, Dr. Fuchs was the younger of two brothers. His father was an Austrian immigrant and his mother’s ancestors were from Central Europe and Ukraine.
Growing up in the Bronx, Dr. Fuchs attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was a popular class officer year after year.
“Almost from the time he could talk he had a talent to amuse,” said his brother Victor of Stanford, Calif. “He could tell jokes, he could impersonate people, he was very good at dialects. But the serious side was, of course, his commitment to civil liberties, civil rights. He was, I would say, a tremendous fan of America. He was a very inspired interpreter and a passionate defender of everything that was best about America.”
Dr. Fuchs served as a medic in the Navy during World War II and graduated in 1950 from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
While pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1955, he began teaching at Brandeis in 1952.
Dr. Fuchs, the Meyer and Walter Jaffe professor of American civilization and politics, “played a greater role in more aspects of the university than any other faculty member in its history,” said Stephen Whitfield, a professor of American studies at Brandeis. “His chief legacy is to have helped make Brandeis University a place of significant academic excellence without in any way impoverishing its humane spirit.”
In the 1960s, Dr. Fuchs worked with Boston and state officials on school desegregation efforts. After his two years as the Peace Corps director in the Philippines, he helped found a like-minded volunteer organization in Massachusetts called the Commonwealth Service Corps.
At the end of the 1970s, he spent two years in Washington as executive director of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, which issued a report during the Carter administration that was a foundation for bipartisan bills to change immigration laws. In the 1990s, he was vice chairman of the US Commission on Immigration Reform.
In 1950, Dr. Fuchs married Natalie Rogers, with whom he had three daughters. Their marriage ended in divorce and in 1970 he married Betty Corcoran Hooven, who died last year.
“Our family always had a great commitment to social justice and advocacy, and he would talk about our responsibility to help repair the world,” his daughter Naomi said.
As the father of a blended family with three daughters and four stepchildren, he also was a great instigator of activities, particularly while vacationing on Cape Cod, where he would get everyone involved with skits, plays, and swimming outings.
When Dr. Fuchs retired in 2002, he reflected at length in a Globe interview about his many serious accomplishments. He couldn’t manage to suppress his ever-present smile, however, when a photographer attempted a serious portrait.
“I have so much to be happy about,” he said.
In addition to his daughter and brother, Dr. Fuchs leaves two other daughters, Janet of Newton and Frances of Santa Rosa, Calif.; three stepsons, Michael Hooven of Cincinnati, Fred Hooven of Northampton, and John Hooven of West Brookfield; a stepdaughter, Carole Hooven of Cambridge; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. April 21 in Sherman Hall at the Hassenfeld Conference Center at Brandeis University.
During the years he was ill, Dr. Fuchs continued to correspond with friends and colleagues all over the world, dictating letters and notes each week to an assistant until days before he died.
Strom, who considered Dr. Fuchs as “a role model for decency,” visited him a few months ago.
“There he was, interesting and kind, and the conversation was wonderful,” she said. “He was surrounded by books, surrounded by ideas, but had no pretense. He was just a gentle soul. Who could ask for a better teacher in the world?”