Laya Wiesner, widow of late MIT president, dies at 79; championed women on campus


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Tuesday, Sept. 29 -- Laya W. Wiesner, 79, of Watertown, civic leader and champion of an expanded role for women at MIT and widow of MIT's thirteenth president, Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, died Monday night (Sept. 28) in Mt. Auburn Hospital of complications from polymyositis, a degenerative muscular disease.

"Laya Wiesner was a remarkable woman with an indomitable spirit," said Catherine M. Stratton, widow of MIT's eleventh president, Julius. "She was incredibly courageous, allocating her energy to the causes which mattered most to her -- civil rights, mentoring MIT women students in the fields of science and engineering, and being a sparkling, creative partner to her husband."

Dr. Wiesner, who died in 1994, was president of MIT from 1971 to 1980.

Mrs. Wiesner was a founder and strong supporter of the Metropolitan Council on Education (METCO) program that brought minority children in Boston to suburban schools. She was a leader of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, which she joined in 1952, and served as state chair for its Human Resources Committee from 1964-66. She helped organize the pioneering KLH Day Care Center in Cambridge, served on the Governor's Advisory Committee on Child Development in Massachusetts, and on the board of the Cambridge School of Weston.

MIT President Charles M. Vest, noting that the Wiesners were a model leadership team, said, "I admired her for her leadership in the Boston area, and for her dedication to making MIT a broadly creative and caring institution."

Rebecca M. Vest, the present First Lady of MIT, said she felt honored to present the Laya W. Wiesner award annually to the undergraduate woman who has done the most to enhance MIT community life "Laya never lost her abiding interest and love of the students here," said Mrs. Vest. "She was a gentle, intelligent caring woman who will be greatly missed by the MIT community." Mrs. Wiesner had personally selected all 18 winners of the award, established in 1980 by the MIT Women's League.

During the Wiesner presidency, she took an active, and often leadership, role in various MIT projects and activities, including the MIT Women's League, the advisory committee on women and work, and the advisory board of MIT's Child Development Center. In 1973, she helped organize the workshop on Women in Science and Technology, which brought together leaders from government, industry and education to address the challenges and opportunities in this area.

She also met regularly with women on the faculty, acting as their "eyes and ears" while working to increase their numbers, recalled Priscilla K. Gray, whose husband, Paul, succeeded Dr. Wiesner as president of MIT. "She was aware of the issues and keen to get them on the table," said Mrs. Gray, who remembered her as "very kind and generous of spirit, a great lady. She was always concerned about people; she always asked about their families. She was a very caring person and she always knew what was going on here."

Dr. Paul Gray also remembered Mrs. Wiesner for her bravery and commitment to principles, even while battling a debilitating disease, recalling how "she carried on with fortitude, good cheer and courage."

"Laya Wiesner was a great first lady for MIT," said Elizabeth W. Johnson, whose husband, Howard, preceded Dr. Wiesner. "She had compassion, wide-ranging interests and a special concern for women at the Institute as well as in society. Her quiet courage and bravery in her last difficult years were admired by everyone who knew her."

Mrs.������������������Wiesner met her husband-to-be at the University of Michigan when she was an undergraduate. She married him in 1940 after she received the BS in mathematics and he completed most of his doctoral work in communications engineering.

They came to MIT in 1942 when Dr. Wiesner joined the Radiation Laboratory, working on the development of radar. In 1961, they went to Washington upon his appointment as the Science Advisor to President John F. Kennedy. They returned to Cambridge in 1964 when he became dean of the School of Science at MIT. When Dr. Wiesner became president of MIT in 1971, the family chose to continue to live in their Watertown home rather than the President's House on the MIT campus.

"The official residence is magnificent for entertaining," she said, "but not ideally suited for family living. It lends itself beautifully to decorating and I had a great time with it," acquiring tapestries by artists Joan Mir������������������, Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder.

She also inaugurated a series of Sunday evening dinners at the President's house at which students from a residence hall or independent living group could meet key faculty in an informal setting.

Mrs. Wiesner, one of six children in the Wainger family of Johnstown, Pa, was born on December 24, 1918. She shared a lifelong love for music, literature and the arts with her husband. She admired authors George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey and economist John Maynard Keynes. Her children introduced her to the work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

She felt it was important for parents to pass on their values to their children. "Let them know what you stand for," she said. "Discuss your beliefs with them. Sometimes we are so busy with our commitments, we assume there is an absorption process going on. It is not always the case. Try to state those values explicitly."

Mrs. Wiesner is survived by four children -- Steven, a physicist, of Mitzpah Ramon, Israel; Zachary, a sculptor, of West Tisbury, Mass.; Lisa, a pediatrician, of Branford, Conn.; Joshua, an artist, of Somerville, Mass.; and two brothers, Piery and Yale. The memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow (Thursday) at the Levine Chapel, 470 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass.. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Myositis Association of America, 755 Cantrell Avenue, Suite C, Harrisonburg, Va. 22801.


Topics: History of MIT, Obituaries, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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