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Gerald Herman, 73, indefatigable and inspirational Northeastern history professor

Mr. Herman taught more than 40 unique courses and spent 27 nonconsecutive years on the faculty senate during his nearly 50 years at Northeastern University.

By Globe Staff 

Though Gerald Herman had a nearly endless list of interests, his career was always his favorite hobby.

A prolific reader and a charismatic professor, he jumped at every opportunity to instill his love of history in others, whether through the classes he taught at Northeastern University or while visiting the Imperial War Museums in London with his grandson.

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The energy he brought to his long tenure teaching and in the faculty senate, along with his depth of expertise in a wide range of fields, set him apart, his colleagues and family said.

“I never met anybody who knew more about more things than he did,” said Raymond Robinson, a retired Northeastern history professor who had taught Mr. Herman as a student in the 1960s, and then hired him. “If one person had to be called upon who knew more about what was going on in the university than anyone else, in many, many different areas, it was Gerry Herman.”

Mr. Herman, a professor emeritus of history at Northeastern, where he taught for nearly 50 years, died Dec. 6 in Newton-Wellesley Hospital from complications of stomach cancer. He was 73 and had lived in Norwood.

At Northeastern, his office was legendary with its floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books, including extra copies of academic volumes to lend to students. His home office wasn’t much different, said his wife, Jacqueline. “He had more books than anyone we knew,” she said.

Her family had inspired one of his main interests in history. Jacqueline was born in Belgium after it was liberated from the Nazis during World War II. Her parents, who were Jewish, had stayed alive during the war by remaining in hiding. Mr. Herman began teaching courses about the Holocaust in the 1970s, when few professors did, and he helped expand Northeastern’s Jewish Studies program.

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Mr. Herman grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the older of two sons born to Joseph Herman and the former Charlotte Brateman. As a child, he was given a set of encyclopedias, and he simply “devoured them,” his wife said. He was only 16 when he began attending Hunter College of the City University of New York on a scholarship. In 1965, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and international affairs.

Even as a teenager in college, Mr. Herman was a presence in any room, which continued into his teaching career. At 6 feet 3 inches, with a deep, booming voice, Mr. Herman commanded the attention of a classroom without having to request it.

Howard Golub, who met Mr. Herman in college and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, described his friend’s effect on others as a “warm tidal wave” — it was strong and pushed you back, but never felt threatening or uncomfortable.

“He was what I would call a very happy iconoclast,” Golub said. “A lot of people who are opinionated are sharp-tongued and kind of nasty. . . . He was opinionated, but it was almost in a loving way.”

Mr. Herman met Jacqueline Bolmut when they were teenagers living in neighboring buildings. They were two “nerdy kids” who listened to classical music, went to Radio City Music Hall, and looked for inexpensive date ideas, Jacqueline recalled.

He had the energy of 20 people, she said, and was always ready to wake her early to see a double feature at the local movie theater. He would write her poems and sing to her, too. “It was very romantic,” she said.

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They married as soon as Mr. Herman graduated from Hunter, and the very next day he had a meeting at Northeastern. Before even taking a honeymoon — which they went on years later — they moved to the Boston area. They lived in Brookline and Brockton before settling in Bellingham, where they raised their two daughters.

When Mr. Herman moved to Boston, he began graduate studies at Northeastern, where he received a master’s degree in history in 1967. He began assistant teaching while studying and became an instructor of history the year he received his master’s.

Becoming a professor wasn’t his initial career choice. After graduating from Hunter, Mr. Herman became a US State Department reserve Foreign Service officer and intended to serve in the Vietnam War after finishing his master’s. When a teaching position opened up at Northeastern, he changed his plans.

He was awarded tenure in 1973 and was an assistant professor of history until retiring in 2015. Along the way he was acting chairman of the history department in the late 1990s, and also had been the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and academic director of humanities and social sciences for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Over the years, Mr. Herman taught more than 40 unique courses, according to Northeastern. Among them were classes in the history of science and technology, which he co-taught with Arvin Grabel, a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering.

“He always helped in so many different ways,” Grabel said. “Everyone knew if you really had to figure out what you were going to do, you go see Gerry. . . . He had a tremendous impact on the university, certainly the faculty.”

Mr. Herman was such an active participant in university governance that his “university service” list of positions takes up nearly 10 pages on his resume. He spent 27 nonconsecutive years on the faculty senate, according to Northeastern.

“He was on the faculty senate probably more than any single individual in the whole university and always could be depended upon,” Robinson said. “Gerry was just an unbelievable person.”

Last April, the faculty senate honored Mr. Herman as the first recipient of the Gerald Herman Shared Governance and Leadership Award, which the senate plans to present annually to a faculty member who demonstrates excellence in university leadership.

Outside of Northeastern, Mr. Herman was an avid film watcher, a master of Trivial Pursuit, and a deep-voiced singer who knew the lyrics to countless songs, his wife said.

He also loved to travel. Last March, about four years after his cancer diagnosis, Mr. Herman and his wife took a 23-day-cruise, which included time in Australia, where he had longed to visit.

Despite his declining health, Mr. Herman loved the trip. His youthful energy remained and he originally wanted to take an even longer cruise, Jacqueline said. “He didn’t regret going at all,” she said, “and he felt fulfilled that he had done what he always wanted to do.”

A service has been held for Mr. Herman, who in addition to his wife leaves two daughters, Lauren of New York City and Tara of London; his brother, Richard of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.

Northeastern became an “entire family affair,” said Jacqueline, who noted that both of their daughters attended the university.

Mr. Herman, she added, “was a workaholic. Work was everything. He was one of these rare people who would get up in the morning singing. I would be throwing shoes at him because he was so happy. But how lucky he was to love the work he was doing.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.