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April 3, 1997

Robert G. Colodny

A memorial service for long-time Pitt history professor Robert G. Colodny will be held today, April 3, at 2 p.m. at the Heinz Memorial Chapel.

Colodny was a Pitt faculty member from 1959 until his retirement in 1985, specializing in the history of science and European history. He died at his Pleasant Hills residence March 17 of complications from colon cancer. He was 81.

In 1961, Colodny became the center of a national controversy when then-state Rep. John T. Walsh of McKeesport accused him of being a Communist sympathizer. The accusation followed publication of a Pittsburgh Press story that quoted Colodny as saying the Cuban revolution represented "agrarian reform." The story also noted Colodny's Spanish Civil War service with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of the forces of volunteers from 53 countries that fought on the Loyalist side. The American-based Abraham Lincoln Brigade became a leftist political action group after 1939, when Francisco Franco's fascists overthrew the Spanish republican government.

In the wake of the Press article and Walsh's attacks, Colodny was called before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Colodny testified that he had been misquoted and was not a Communist. The committee took no action against him.

Under pressure from critics who maintained that American universities were coddling subversive leftists, Pitt's administration conducted its own six-month inquiry into charges that Colodny was pro-Communist. In announcing that the Pitt investigation cleared Colodny, then-Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield wrote that the American university "embraces and supports the society in which it operates, but it knows no established doctrines, accepts no ordained patterns of behavior, acknowledges no truth as given. Were it otherwise, the university would be unworthy of the role which our society has assigned it." Colodny continued as a Pitt professor for another 25 years, remaining active in the peace and environmental movements. In a 1970 University Times commentary, Colodny wrote: "A university can never be more certain that it is properly functioning than when its faculty is accused of subversion, because then some entrenched idea is under assault and some traditional holder of power feels the tempest of new and renewing ideas." A Phoenix native who was raised in California, Colodny enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1936 to study chemistry. But the following year, he heard a radio broadcast about the Spanish Civil War and decided to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In summer 1937, while fighting near Madrid, Colodny was struck above the right eye by a sniper's bullet. The injury left him partially paralyzed and blind on his left side.

Nonetheless, Colodny joined the U.S. Army in 1941. He served for four years, becoming a staff sergeant with U.S. Army Intelligence in Alaska's Aleutian Islands and earning an Army commendation medal. Among his fellow intelligence staffers in Alaska was novelist Dashiell Hammett.

Colodny earned a doctorate in history and philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950. He taught at San Francisco State College and the University of Kansas before joining the Pitt faculty in 1959.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret; a son, Robert Newman of San Francisco; a daughter, Marian Yeager Roth of Palm Bay, Fla.; a sister, Elaine Hellenthal of Sacramento, Calif., and a granddaughter.

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