Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

July 9, 2015

Obituary: Orysia Karapinka

karapinka“That’s what I am: a teacher,” retired associate professor of history Orysia Karapinka wrote to her former student Russell Martin when she learned that he had organized and edited an increasingly rare honor in academics, a festschrift, celebrating her 43 years at Pitt. “I love working with students. I try to instill in them the same excitement I have for thinking historically and for reading sources.”

Karapinka died on June 4, 2015, of lung cancer. She was born in Ukraine on Oct. 11, 1938, and after World War II her family emigrated to Irvington, New Jersey.

Karapinka earned a BA from Smith College in history. She earned an MA in Russian history from the University of California-Berkeley in 1961, receiving her PhD in the same discipline from that institution in 1967.

That year, she joined Pitt’s history department, becoming one of its first two female faculty members, who were hired simultaneously. By 1974, she had been promoted to her final rank and was awarded tenure.

She received the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1990 and in 2003 joined the Faculty Honor Roll in recognition of her teaching. She retired in 2010.

Martin, a faculty member at Westminster College, published “Ad Fontes: Essays in Russian and Soviet History, Politics and Society in Honor of Orysia Karapinka” in 2010. It contains contributions from Pitt faculty as well as those from Harvard, Westminster College, Samford University, Piedmont Virginia Community College, Wittenberg University and the University of the Sciences of Philadelphia.

In his introduction, Martin noted that his longtime mentor “is, to be sure, one of the field’s master teachers. She serves as a model for all of us still in the field during these crepuscular times.” With her retirement, he added, students “will now be deprived of what might have been for them one of the most dynamic, inspiring and demanding classroom experiences of their college careers.”

Martin says today: “She was frankly the most amazing teacher I’ve ever had. Her lecture notes were more useful to me than any I had at Harvard. She was rigorous and exacting on her students. Her class would be the one the business majors and the psychology majors would remember more than any else.”

He recalls Karapinka delivering “fearsome lectures, designed, it seemed, to thin the room out,” but actually just setting a tone for the course. “She had this outward veneer of sternness and unapproachability but nothing could be further from the truth. Once you got to know her a little bit she was the most generous person with her time,” opening her office as a “mecca,” he recalls, for students to argue with her academically.

Some people disparage large universities for not emphasizing teaching enough. Martin’s experiences with Karapinka’s courses leave him disagreeing with such a sentiment to this day. “She wasn’t really a researcher. She devoted all of her energy to teaching. She cared deeply about it, and she knew she was good at it.”

A memorial service for Karapinka will be held on Aug. 17 at 11:30 a.m. in Heinz Chapel.

—Marty Levine    

Leave a Reply