LDF Mourns the Loss of George Wallerstein, Longtime Board Member, Award-Winning Astronomer, and Esteemed Professor

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of George Wallerstein, Board member, celebrated astronomer, Professor Emeritus, and dedicated philanthropic supporter whose generous financial contributions helped establish LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. Mr. Wallerstein died on May 13, 2021. He was 91.

“We send our heartfelt condolences to Mr. Wallerstein’s family and cannot overstate LDF’s gratitude for his years of dedicated stewardship as a member of our board, his significant gifts to our endowment and LDF programmatic initiatives, his expert chairing of the LDF Scholarship Committee, and his generous funding of scholarships that have helped countless numbers of students of color on their path to higher education. The impact of his kindness will ripple for generations,” LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill.

George Wallerstein was born in New York City on January 13, 1930, the youngest child of his parents Leo and Dorothy Calman Wallerstein, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. Mr. Wallerstein grew up during the Great Depression and attended Horace Mann School in the Bronx, environments which gave him a front-eye view to economic and racial inequalities in America.

Speaking to the Seattle Times in 2004, Mr. Wallerstein said, “If you were brought up in New York in the ’30s and ’40s, you saw the difference between middle-class whites, where I came from, and lower-class blacks, where they came from. If you were black, you could get a job as an elevator operator or a porter on a car. You couldn’t get other kinds of jobs. You were excluded.”

An amateur boxer while in high school, the young Mr. Wallenstein initially held aspirations of competing in the Golden Gloves tournaments. But he ultimately attended Brown University, where he graduated with a degree in Physics in 1951. Following college, Mr. Wallerstein served two years as a junior officer in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and then went on to pursue a path in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his Master of Science in 1954 and his PhD four years later. 

After completing his studies, Mr. Wallerstein joined the faculty of the astronomy department at the University of California, Berkley, where he taught for seven years and ultimately held tenure as an associate professor. In 1964, he was hired by the University of Washington to Chair its newly formed Astronomy Department, which had been made an independent department in the school on the basis of his advice.

Distinguishing himself as not only an educator, but also a leading researcher studying the chemical composition of the stars, Mr. Wallerstein taught at the University of Washington for over three decades. Among his many laudable achievements during his time there, Mr. Wallerstein advised 12 PhD students on their theses, provided financial support and mentorship to several postdoctoral fellows, obtained funding for a 30-inch research telescope on Manastash Ridge in Washington State, and expanded research into stellar evolution. He retired with the title of Professor Emeritus in 1998.

Mr. Wallerstein began supporting LDF’s work during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Speaking to LDF later he said, “It was apparent even then that the effort to expand civil rights in the United States would be a long job.”

He joined the LDF Board of Directors in 1992 and gave the organization nearly 30 years of guidance alongside generous financial gifts — often to the cause of expanding access to quality higher educational opportunities for Black students through LDF scholarship programs. In addition to his dedicated annual donations to LDF, Mr. Wallerstein made substantial contributions to its core Herbert Lehman Education Fund, established in 1964 to support Black undergraduates and law students who were in financial need and on the frontlines of newly desegregated academic institutions in the South. The Herbert Lehman Scholarships have continued to help scores of students complete their undergraduate studies over the years, in part due to Mr. Wallerstein’s consistent backing of the program and his belief in the value of knowledge and its power to benefit the world. 

“Every year it is rewarding to learn about the new class of scholarship recipients, individuals with a passion to help improve their communities,” Mr. Wallerstein and his wife, Julie Lutz, previously said of their generous support to LDF’s educational programs. “We appreciate knowing that they are on their way to join LDF’s outstanding alumni – judges, members of Congress, professors, founders of community organizations – individuals who will carry forward LDF’s fight for justice and equality.”

Mr. Wallerstein’s commitment to advancing racial equality in education also involved decades of fundraising support and personal donations to the United Negro College Fund, where he served as an advisory council member and created an endowment to establish a research fellowship for faculty of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Other beneficiaries of his generous philanthropy included HBCUs Tougaloo College, Morehouse College, and Fisk University, and organizations such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

As an accomplished researcher himself, Mr. Wallerstein donated $1 million dollars to LDF in 2015 to help fund the Thurgood Marshall Institute, which houses LDF’s research work and voting projects. He also committed an additional $1 million dollars to LDF’s endowment that same year. As a Board member at LDF, Mr. Wallerstein continued to provide invaluable facilitation of the organization’s fundraising initiatives.  

In 2002, he was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship by the American Astrological Society (AAS)—its highest honor—for his lifetime achievements in astronomical research, and in 2020 was inducted as a fellow of the AAS in recognition of his contributions towards humanity’s understanding of the universe. Mr. Wallerstein was also honored as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the International Astronomical Union; and held an honorary degree from Tougaloo College.

Mr. Wallerstein was also a meteorology enthusiast, a trained pilot, and an avid mountain hiker even into his late 80s. His broad interests and depth of expertise were additionally reflected in his many high-level advisory roles, which included being a Board director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Council for Economic Progress, as well as a former Trustee for his alma mater, Brown University.  

Mr. Wallerstein is survived by Julie Lutz — his wife of 23 years — his sister Dorothy Marx, and his extended family – including stepchildren, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. We send our sincerest condolences to all of Mr. Wallerstein’s loved ones during this difficult time.