Richard Pfeffer, 65, professor, advocate for workers' safety

May 22, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Richard M. Pfeffer, a professor who became a workers' safety advocate for the federal government after being denied tenure at the Johns Hopkins University, died Monday of prostate cancer at his Roland Park home. He was 65.

A self-described "American Marxist," he was an associate professor of political science at Hopkins from 1969 to 1979. In 1981, after two years as a Legal Aid counselor, he became a Labor Department senior attorney who specialized in worker safety and health issues. He retired this year.

Born in New York City, he earned his undergraduate degree at Yale University in 1958. He earned his master's in East Asian regional studies, a doctorate in government and a law degree, all from Harvard University.

Known as Ric, he arrived at Hopkins to teach contemporary Chinese politics at the end of the 1960s. By 1970, he was a highly visible faculty member in campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the school's Applied Physics Lab and its Defense Department research. He also was faculty speaker at two commencements.

"Ric was clearly a dramatic figure on the Hopkins campus," said Richard A. Macksey, Hopkins professor of comparative literature. "There was a Red thread in his life. He was concerned about society."

As an "avowed Marxist," according to a 1977 article in The Sun, Dr. Pfeffer "had made more than a few people at the staid Homewood campus uncomfortable, but at the same time he has delighted others. By turn eloquent and abrasive, Dr. Pfeffer has been a leader in campus protests. ... And he has developed a reputation as a brilliant teacher who makes his students think."

In 1977, the tenured members of the Hopkins political science department voted against giving Dr. Pfeffer tenure. They based their decision on his book, Working for Capitali$m, a partial account of his seven-month employment in the mid-1970s as a $4-an-hour forklift operator at a Koppers Co. piston ring factory in Southwest Baltimore.

"There's an intellectual market, and universities are intellectual buyers," he said in a 1979 Sun interview. "If you produce something they don't want to buy, they call it bad scholarship, and you don't get tenure."

He left teaching in 1979, worked at Legal Aid's Consumer Law Center on West North Avenue and joined the U.S. Labor Department in 1981.

"At the Labor Department, he was so well respected he was admired even by those who didn't agree with him all the time," said Sarah Shortall, a Labor Department attorney and colleague.

"He used his legal degree to shape public policy and by doing this, he developed some important regulations to protect workers ... from exposure to lead, cadmium and chromium," she said. "He was the attorney for the department's very controversial field sanitation effort -- toilet facilities and fresh drinking water for farm workers."

"Hundreds of workers go home safe and healthy every night because of his work," said Marthe Kent, a Labor Department official who works with the National Safety Council and called Dr. Pfeffer "a giant" in the regulatory history of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In addition to his 1979 book, he was also the editor of No More Vietnams? The War and the Future of American Foreign Policy, published in 1968 by Harper and Row, and Understanding Business Contracts in China, published by Harvard University Press in 1973.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Stony Run Friends Meeting House, 5116 N. Charles St.

He is survived by his wife of 17 years, the former Sylvia Gillett; two sons, Soren Pfeffer of Montpelier, Vt., and Alexei Pfeffer-Gillett of Baltimore; a daughter, Tolya Pfeffer-Bacon of Berkeley, Calif.; his mother, Syril Pfeffer of Baltimore; and two granddaughters. His previous marriages to Margot Lasher and Elinor R. Bacon ended in divorce.

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