Alexander Hersh, social worker and Penn professor

Alexander-Hersh-Photo
Alexander Hersh

Even after a long career as a social worker and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Alexander Hersh never stopped learning, whether it was carpentry or gardening, both of which he taught himself, or enrolling in online classes from the education technology company Coursera.

Then, there was his crewel work.

Mr. Hersh's daughter taught her father how to embroider, and he "went on to do beautiful work," said his wife of 59 years, Phyllis. He created wall hangings, cushion tops, and quilts for each of his three grandchildren. Perhaps his talent with a needle was inherited, since he was the son a seamstress and a tailor.

Mr. Hersh, 91, died Saturday, Oct. 1, from cancer at Cathedral Village in Andorra, where the couple moved after raising their family in Mount Airy. Until two summers ago, when he started feeling sick, the octogenarian was always active, his wife said.

"He was an interesting man in that he did many, many things and he never stopped learning," she said.

Mr. Hersh grew up in a Jewish Hungarian neighborhood in Minneapolis, where his parents moved after fleeing the anti-Semitism of post-World War I Hungary.

He served in the Navy during World War II, then earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota, followed by a master's degree and later a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

He was a social worker with several organizations, including the Jewish Child Care Association, and was director of social work at Woods Services and Elwyn, focusing on disabled children and their families. In 1968, he became a professor of social work at Penn, where he taught for 22 years, then served as a student recruiter.

As an advocate for developmentally disabled children and a proponent for deinstitutionalization, Mr. Hersh helped in the fight to close Pennhurst State School and Hospital, which was targeted in a federal class action lawsuit for mistreatment of its residents. A settlement forced the Spring City, Chester County institution to close on Dec. 9, 1987, and required that community-based services be offered to all of its residents.

"He cared very much about disabled children and their families and how they were treated," said his wife, who was also a social worker.

Mr. Hersh had a great sense of humor and loved to tell stories, particularly the one about his high school principal trying three times to kick him out for some mischief, but he fought to stay in school.

In addition to his embroidery skills, Mr. Hersh was an avid sportsman who played golf and tennis into his late 80s.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Elizabeth and Shari, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, at Cathedral Hall, Cathedral Village, 600 E. Cathedral Rd.

Donations may be made to Arc of Pennsylvania at www.thearcpa.org or to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at www.pennhort.net/give.

kboccella@phillynews.com

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